Washing possible is more than possible
U 18.204-6: [...] when I said I washed up and down as far as possible asking me and did you wash possible the women are always egging on to that […]
Molly Bloom’s monologue often ventures into areas that were not discussed in print in Ireland in the 1920s, let alone in 1904. One side-effect of this is that it is sometimes hard to find contemporaneous evidence for expressions which she mentions, such as to wash possible, and we have to rely upon later memories for confirmation. In this case, early print evidence outside Joyce is lacking, but a recently discovered postcard from the time provides independent support for the popularity of the phrase.
Joyce was clearly tickled by the wordplay involved in Molly’s description of washing herself. She says that she “washed up and down as far as possible”, which is quite understandable. Her friend Josie follows this up by mischievously asking if she washed "possible" – i.e. her genital/sexual area – as we realise that Josie is humorously manipulating “possible” (in “as far as possible”) into a noun.
Commentators and slang lexicographers seem to have missed the humorous allusion, though several scholars have referred to it in passing. As yet it has not been located in early twentieth-century texts. Perhaps some later uses are dependent upon Joyce, but most of them place the phrase in different contexts: either as one that a rather saucy Edwardian or Georgian grandmother might use, or as an old saying in the Southern US.1
Recent research by Aida Yared has, however, uncovered a postcard contemporary with Joyce (see illustration above) which contains the phrase to wash possible, and so we can now feel confident that it was available in the swirl of language available to Joyce as he wrote Ulysses.
But we now know that he was borrowing, rather than inventing, this humorous turn of phrase.
(revised February 2016)
1 See, for example, James Van Dyck Card “The Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Molly Bloom: Patterns of Words in ‘Penelope’”, in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Winter, 1982), pp. 127-39; Rayna Green “Magnolias Grow in Dirt: The Bawdy Lore of Southern Women”, in The Radical Teacher, No. 6, Special Issue on Women's Studies in the 70s: Moving Forward (December, 1977), pp. 26-31.
2 “Holdar Roome” [Harald William Moore] One man's war: 1914-1918 (1968), p. 38.
3 Madison A. Cooper The Haunted Hacienda (1955), p. 32.