The tonic that braces the system

U 16.549-50: a plethora of attractions as well as a bracing tonic for the system in and around Dublin and its picturesque environs

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century tonics were popularly advocated for “bracing the system”, and many advertisements promoted their use in these terms. It appears that this expression was another advertising cliché reiterated by Bloom. Typical examples – in this case from the United States and then from Ireland – run as follows:

Wilhoft’s Anti-Periodic, The Great Chill Cure. – […] It acts promptly as an Anti-Periodic in arresting and breaking up the periodicity of Chills; as a reliable tonic in bracing the system and giving tone to the motor and sensory nerves; [etc.].

Leavenworth (Indiana) Crawford County Democrat (1872), 26 September p. 3

"What’ll you have?"

A cheap substitute? No! I want the genuine


the ideal tonic, that braces the system, cheers the mind,

and invigorates the entire system.

Ulster Herald (1901), 11 March p. 7

The expression itself dates from at least the start of the nineteenth century, as instanced as a “popular term” in the Annual Review for 1803 (p. 805):

The necessity of avoiding all debilitating causes, of allowing a nourishing diet, of air, exercise, occasional tonics, and every thing that is included under the popular term of bracing the system, has long been acknowledged.

Joyce’s Eumaeus notebook entry (“tonic for system bracing”) alludes to this idiom or a variant of it.1 The expression was still prevalent in the early years of the twentieth century, as shown by this advertisement for Bovril (apparently used principally outside the UK and Ireland), here reproduced from the Press (Canterbury, New Zealand) of 25 September (p. 4).2

The idiom, however, was not common in advertisements after around 1910, and this fact is nicely illustrated by the following Google ngram chart for “bracing the system”, plotting its frequency of occurrence in English text between 1800 and 2000:

If the idiom was dying, it is not surprising that Joyce adapted the syntax when he came to write the Eumaeus episode, preferring “a bracing tonic for the system” to “a tonic that braces (or for bracing) the system”. Others were doing the same thing, also in Joyce’s context of outdoor health:

The bracing air of cold weather has a tonic effect upon the system, and, in consequence of its stimulating force, all the bodily functions are quickened.

Weekly Irish Times (1906), 16 June p. 12

The syntactic shift between the Eumaeus notebook and the text of Ulysses shows Joyce yet again aware of linguistic nuance and adapting his source in the light of an emerging and preferred idiom.

John Simpson


1 Phillip Herring, Joyce's notes and early drafts for Ulysses: selections from the Buffalo collection (1977), p. 75.

2 For additional information on quack remedies alluded to by Joyce see Harald Beck, A tonic for that tired feeling.

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