meaning and origin of the phrase ‘count the spoons!’

The domestic phrase count the spoons! and variants are said, either partly or wholly as a jest, after the departure of a person, a couple, or even a small group of persons, regarded as untrustworthy.

For example, the following is from The Weekly Telegraph (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 9th September 1916:

Under Suspicion.
Several members of a women’s club were chatting with a little daughter of their hostess.
“I suppose you are a great help to your mamma?” said one.
“Oh, yes!” replied the little miss, “and so is Ethel; but it is my turn to count the spoons to-day after the company is gone.”

It seems that it was the English lexicographer, author, critic and conversationalist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) who coined the phrase, as the earliest occurrence that I have found is from the first volume of The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (London: Printed by Henry Baldwin, for Charles Dilly, 1791), by James Boswell (1740-1795), Scottish lawyer, diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson:

I described to him an impudent fellow from Scotland, who […] maintained that there was no distinction between virtue and vice. Johnson. “Why, Sir, if the fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying; and I see not what honour he can propose to himself from having the character of a lyar. But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses, let us count our spoons.”

In the course of the 19th century, Samuel Johnson’s bon mot was frequently quoted or alluded to, for example in the review of The Monk of Cimiés (London: William Darton and Son, 1837), a novel by the British author Mary Martha Sherwood (née Butt – 1775-1851)—review published in The Constitutional; and Public Ledger (London, England) of Thursday 2nd March 1837:

The person of the hero [is] as pretty a specimen of candid rascality as one could meet on a summer’s day. He is a heartless voluptuary, with a cowardly misgiving in the midst of his vices, just sufficient to enhance the fearful joys of his licentiousness; a pedantic coxcombical graduate; as fickle in his creed as his love; an insolent son, a faithless lover, a treacherous friend, a dastardly ruffian, an impious priest. He makes love to two sisters at once, though he cares at best for no more than one of them; he deserts both and breaks both their hearts; he shoots his brother; twice apostatizes in religion; abuses the opportunities of the confessional, while he professes the Catholic faith; gives up an innocent man to the inquisition in his own room; and after all writes a whining confession, much of which looks very like a boasting re-enjoyment of bygone debauchery. And this is to prove the depravity of human nature. As well might we take the existence of Hardy Vaux* to be a proof that all mankind are actually pickpockets. We only feel inclined to beg the gentleman to speak for himself; and that Mrs. Sherwood will cut all connection with him, now that she knows the foulness of his ways, or she may depend upon it her reputation will suffer, and her friends will “count their spoons” after she has visited them, according to the advice of right-hearted Samuel Johnson.

(* A London clerk, James Hardy Vaux (1782-18??) became an expert pickpocket, swindler and gambler. He was sent to Australian penal settlements on three separate occasions, and wrote a dictionary of criminal slang.)

The following is a passage from a humoristic article published in John Bull (London, England) of Saturday 30th July 1842:

A posse of these persons who are styled, and who we believe, style themselves “delegates from the great manufacturing towns”—and who, unless the snubbing they have received take them down, are likely enough ere long in their egregious sufficiency to claim the style and title of “representatives” of the said towns—forced their way again into the houses of three of the Ministers on Monday last. By the way, these “interviews” as they are termed, must be a sad pest to the butlers. What a counting of spoons and forks afterwards! However, this par parenthèse.

The phrase occurs in the account, published in The Times (London, England) of Thursday 6th August 1846, of a demonstration organised on Tuesday 4th August 1846 at King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, against the Free Trade measures of the late Government—in May 1846, the British Conservative statesman Robert Peel (1788-1850), then Prime Minister, had achieved the repeal of the Corn Laws, introduced to protect British farmers from foreign competition by allowing grain to be imported only after the price of home-grown wheat had risen above a certain level:

The day after a defeat is not a very cheerful occasion. Now, in the month of August, Protectionist arguments begin to look rather dreary. The abuse was the best part of the day—warmer than the viands, and stronger than the ratiocination. All the best hits of the session were renewed with telling effect. “The farmers of England” were only too happy to hear them all over again by the original performers. There was the “kicking out Sir Robert,” and “the infernal Corn Bill,” and the “Take care of your pockets,” and “the Count your spoons;” there was the prodigious tergiversation, the treachery, and political profligacy; there was the thieving and lying; and, last, but not least, there was the “Judas professing regard for the poor.” This is a hasty enumeration, and we dare say we have left out some “racy” bits; but, considering that catastrophes don’t usually bear repetition, really the defeat of the Protectionists was acted over again with considerable spirit.

In its account of the demonstration of 4th August 1946, The Elgin Courier (Elgin, Moray, Scotland) of Friday 14th August 1846 gave additional details; it quoted Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), one of the Protectionist MPs present at the demonstration, as

talking of the “recreant,” “with all the temirity [sic] of the poltroon, and all the courage of the assassin”—rehearsing the “silver spoon theft,”—which the Times justly denotes “the count-your-spoon-argument.”

2 thoughts on “meaning and origin of the phrase ‘count the spoons!’

  1. Delightful, learning that a favorite quote about hypocrisy has Johnsonian origins.

    “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Conduct of Life: A Philosophical Reading


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