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The phrase 'You pays your money and you takes your choice' is so obviously a colloquialism (since both 'pays' and 'takes' are of course perfectly ungrammatical) that it is often imagined that it is an Americanism. Indeed Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn of 1884 is sometimes cited as a source, as chapter 28 of that novel features a character who draws attention to the "two sets o' heirs to old Peter Wilks - and you pays your money and you takes your choice!"

The truth is however is that the saying is British in origin and was first recorded in the January 1846 edition of Punch. That edition of the magazine featured a cartoon entitled 'The Ministerial Crisis' in which a young girl is seen in conversation with an older man, whom one must presume to have been her father, as a procession of the great and the good goes by, and the caption of which reads, "Which is the Prime Minister? ... Which ever you please, my little dear. You pays your money, and you takes your choice." It is generally believed that Punch was simply appropriating what was at the time a common "stallholder's cry to customers", which some accounts attribute to the Cockney dialect, although that is all intelligent supposition rather than plain fact.

The saying is of course taken to mean that it is entirely up to you which of the available choices you spend your money on, although there is also the unspoken implication that there isn't actually that much difference between the choices on offer.


The Ministerial Crisis of 1845 arose when Robert Peel resigned as Prime Minister on the 5th December 1845, after his cabinet failed to back him over his plans for the phased removal of the Corn Laws in order to meet the challenge of the Irish potato famine. There followed two weeks' worth of indecision as the Lord Stanley (as Edward Geoffrey Smith Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby was known at the time) the leader of the protectionists refused to even try and form a government, whilst Lord John Russell's efforts to establish a Whig government failed completely. In the end Peel was invited by the king to form a government once more. Hence the humour.


SOURCES

  • "You PAYS your money and you takes your choice" The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Ed. Jennifer Speake. Oxford University Press, 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
  • William Safire, On Language; You Pays Yer Money, New York Times, February 28, 1988
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DEEDE1738F93BA15751C0A96E948260

Freud's treatise on Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious quotes a 19th century witticism.

A guide at an art gallery (in London, I think) routinely remarks to a group of visitors:

"And here, ladies and gentlemen, you see the Duke of Wellington with his horse, Copenhagen".

A wit chips in with the comment: "Which one's the Duke?"
Arthur Wellesley was noted for the unusual size and length of his nose - he was called Conky by his troops.

To which the guide responds: "Sir Madam? - you pay your money and you take your choice."


Not in Freud's quote with the demotic -s as usually since cited, it's true, but entirely suggestive of a wry, slightly bored, economically cynical view of the world.

This makes good sense as the source of the saying, I think. It could date to any year from 1815, I suppose.

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