We all know that you can have too much of a good thing. Best to stop after one drink. ‘Once is a dose’ is a sharp reminder that less can be more, or that "once bitten" you should be "twice shy". It's an expression that has been hidden away unrecognised for many years in Ulysses and is recorded more frequently in North American sources than in British or Irish ones. East Coast papers of the 1880s and 1890 contain examples of the phrase, and ‘Edmund John Leathes’, who published An Actor Abroad in 1880, offers a typical example:
I once tasted it — the flavour is something like crab-apple, only not so nice; that once was a dose.
We can take the expression back to 1843, and to Thomas Nichols’s Ellen Ramsay. Nichols had, according to Clarence Babcock in The American Frontier (1967), ‘a sharp ear for the nuances of folk idiom and of regional varieties of American English’. Nichols certainly picked up a variety of this expression:
‘Suppose we go, and see if we can’t have better luck to-night.’ ‘No, I thank you,’ said Edward drily, ‘once is a dose of that.’ ‘Well, perhaps you are right,’ said Jenkins, looking moral.’ (p. 33)
And well might Jenkins have looked moral. ‘Once is a dose’ is a variant of the medical instruction ‘one pill is a dose’, attached to receipts and prescriptions from at least the eighteenth century. But it comes with a twist:
We have not repeated our visit, as, to use the language of a certain class of quacks, one pill is a dose.
Literary Panorama (1808) col. 1135
We are certainly dealing with a ‘certain class of quacks’, and they are revealed in the Public Ledger of 29 December 1779:
By Virtue of Authority bearing date the 19th of March, 1777 Dr. Boerhaave’s Antiscorbutic and Antivenereal Leyden Pills, without Mercury, Justly famous for curing the scurvy, leprosy, gutta serena, rheumatism, noctural pains, violent itching eruptions, carious bones, ulcerated legs, venereal disease, ill effects of mercury, obstructions in the urinary passage, and stubborn gleets, which are so often mistaken for virulent gonorrhœas, ONE PILL IS A DOSE.
The injunction grows out of earlier advice, found in advertisements in papers such as the Daily Post (9 August 1743):
Anti-Syphilicon… It does more by one Dose than any other Medicine yet known can by ten.
And the Universal Spectator of 30 June 1733:
Concerning Gleets and Seminal Weaknesses of all Kinds… This transcendent Balsamick Restrictive Electuary..is a wonderful restorative… One dose of it does more than ten of any other Remedy yet found out.
The expression ‘once is a dose’ derives from a simple instruction given by doctors when describing how medicines should be concocted. See, for example:
The following Vomitive Pill was frequently used with excellent success, by a famous Mountebank in England.
Take a Glass of Antimony powdred, and Cream of Tartar, each one ounce, with a sufficient quantity of common Treacle, make Pills of the bigness of a large pease; sprinkle them with fine wheaten Flower; one is a Dose.
John Pechey London Dispensatory (1694) 146
From here it entered the less salubrious vocabulary of the quack doctors with their instant cures for venereal diseases in the eighteenth century. As this specific application came to be forgotten, the expression ‘one pill is a dose’ sprang a variant (apparently in North America) ‘once is a dose’ – the form which Joyce collected for use in Ulysses.
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