Whatever you want
Whatever you like
Whatever you say
You pay your money
You take your choice
Whatever you need
Whatever you use
Whatever you win
Whatever you lose
Whatever you want
- Lyric from Whatever You Want, Status Quo
Driving home the other day I was thinking about the Federal election coming up in September when the above song came on the radio. The lyrics “You pay your money, you take your choice” seemed particularly apt for the election - according to one internet comment: “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.”
Which had me wondering on the origin of the phrase.
My recollection was that the wording was actually “You pays your money, you takes your choice”, which turned out to be correct. There is also a variation “You pays your money, you takes your chance”. In the US it is commonly "You pays your nickel, you takes your choice."
The expression appears in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, dating from 1884:
“Here’s your opposition line! Here’s your two sets o’ heirs to old Peter Wilks—and you pays your money and you takes your choice!”
Although many believe that it dates from that reference, it first appeared in an 1846 Punch cartoon and is believed to have already been in use, probably as a Cockney expression yelled out by stall holders at the markets, well before that date.
In 1845 the Ministry of John Peel faced a crisis over the repeal of the Corn Laws. These laws were trade laws designed to protect cereal producers of the United Kingdom against foreign imports. They also ensured that British landowners reaped the profits from farming in that the corn laws made it too expensive to import grain from elsewhere, even when Great Britain and Ireland were experiencing famine and food shortages. In 1845 Ireland was hit by a potato blight. Over the next 4 years over a million died in the Great Famine and a million more left Ireland.
Many Tories were opposed to the repeal of the laws but Peel, Queen Victoria, the Whigs and some Tories were strongly supportive. When Peel’s cabinet failed to back him on repeal, he resigned as Prime Minister on 5 December, 1845. The leader of the Protectionists, Lord Stanley, refused to step into Peel’s shoes and form a government. Efforts by Lord Russell to form a Whig government also failed. Victoria invited Peel to form a government again, which he did. (Peel resigned again in 1846, after the repeal narrowly passed, and was replaced by Lord Russell).
The 1846 Punch cartoon, headed The Ministerial Crisis, is from the period when there was no Prime Minister. It depicts a showman inviting John Bull to look into a display box.
The following conversation is printed below the cartoon:
Showman. "On your right you will perceive a Prime Minister a bolishing of hisself. And over your left is another Prime Minister a bolishing of the Corn-Laws."
Master John Bull. "But which is the Prime Minister?"
Showman. "Which ever you please, my little dear. You pays your money, and you takes your choice."