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.

Postcard: Ludgate Series (E. J. Hey & Co.) (1920)

Image courtesy of Aida Yared

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

The most well-known occurrence comes from Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (1969: p. 26):

'Thou shall not be dirty' and 'Thou shall not be impudent' were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson [...] She used to add, with a smirk that unprofane people can't control when venturing into profanity, 'and wash as far as possible, then wash possible'.

“Holdar Roome” refers to the expression in another context: soldiering in the First World War – though in a text published as late as 1968:2

Next we washed up as far as possible,

Then we washed 'possible'.

Apart from light fatigues, or sentry-duty,

And muster-rolls each morning, we were free

To do whate'er we wished.

For Madison A. Cooper it was an expression known and used by the generation before last:3

Remembered were directions old when his father had been young: To take a sponge-bath, begin with your face and wash down as far as possible. Then start from your feet and wash up as far as possible. Most important of all: don't forget to wash possible!

The phrase persists - in a magazine Molly might have read at the time, had it been available:

As for "vagina" — well, this is how my grandmother taught her girls to bathe: "Wash down as far as possible, then wash up as far as possible, then wash possible."

Ms. Magazine (1985), vol. 14 p. 200

But the earliest example found in traditional printed sources to date comes from as late as 1951, in Helene MaCLean’s There’s no place like Paris! (p. 106):

If you've gone camping or spent time at a bucolic summer retreat where you've had to resort to pitcher and basin, your bathing routine usually consisted of washing up as far as possible and washing down as far as possible. Well, to this arrangement the French have added the bidet in order to wash possible.

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.

Joyce turned to this expression later in Finnegans Wake (298.28):

[...] this tendency of our Frivulteeny Sexuagesima to expense herselfs as sphere as possible [...]

But we now know that he was borrowing, rather than inventing, this humorous turn of phrase.

John Simpson

(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.

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