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In The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis, the characters bathe in a mountain stream during Digory's journey to get the silver apple for Aslan. Lewis says of Polly's turn:

Polly went down and had her bath; at least she said that was what she'd been doing, but we know she was not much of a swimmer and perhaps it is best not to ask too many questions.

(In some versions, it says "had her bathe".)

What is this supposed to mean, especially by "and perhaps it is best not to ask too many questions"? Is it meant to imply that Polly was doing something other than swimming/bathing or is it a reference to the time period?

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  • 14
    I assumed the implication was that she's had a 'gas station shower' (e.g. where you wash the stinky bits by hand)
    – Valorum
    Nov 8, 2021 at 3:59
  • Was that a thing, per se, at the time period? Nov 8, 2021 at 4:01
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    the concept is at least as old as the oldest profession.
    – Valorum
    Nov 8, 2021 at 6:39
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    @Laurel - I'm honestly not sure whether the edit changes the meaning. The earliest dictionary I can find is Samuel Johnson's from 1768 which has the usage; To Bathe is to washe oneself, a Bath is an object in which one can bathe.
    – Valorum
    Nov 8, 2021 at 19:57
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    "Bathe" is the correct word here. "Bathe" as a verb means to immerse yourself in water, wherever the water is; and Lewis is simply making a noun of the verb. You can only "have a bath" in a bath though, where a bath is a person-sized receptacle full of water. It is literally not possible to "have a bath" in a stream, lake, swimming pool, because they are not baths. As a professor of linguistics, Lewis would not make this mistake, so this error can only have come from a later editor.
    – Graham
    Nov 9, 2021 at 13:15

5 Answers 5

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She is "taking a bath" without actually getting into water except for maybe thigh deep. That means taking water by hand and washing the crucial parts (bottom, front, armpits, legs), while not wasting too much time on the other parts. As far as I can remember, at that point in the story they don't have any soap and the stream is cold.

And you don't ask, you never ask a lady what exactly she is doing in the bathroom.

As Valorum said in the comment above, the concept of "gas station shower" is as old as time.

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This clause is critical: "we know she was not much of a swimmer and perhaps it is best not to ask too many questions."

Lewis was writing for children, and children have fears about not being able to do things that the other kids are doing—like not knowing how to ride a bike, or do a trick, or swim. The passage is intended to convey that Polly was putting on a face for show a la "Yeah, I totally went for a swim. Boy-howdy, I sure do love swimming! Nothing beats a good swim, yesiree Bob!"* when in fact she had simply washed up, without actually diving in and swimming.

Note: In British English one of the meanings of the verb 'to bathe' is 'to swim'.


* My native tongue is American English, and I have never resided in the UK, so I just know that there are probably idioms of British English bent that would fit more nicely with Lewis' writing.

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  • In British English one of the meanings of the verb 'to bathe' is 'to swim' -- I am not sure if it's particularly British, but for anyone not really aware of this usgae, I would point out that most people worldwide would be aware that some people say bathing suit and not swimsuit. Mar 10 at 16:28
  • @ThePopMachine And yet people in comments and other answers clearly do not understand that "a bathe = a swim", and "to bathe" = "to swim" in Lewis' British English.
    – Lexible
    Mar 10 at 17:15
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There's a bit of hidden nuance here. The original must be "had her bathe" because British English uses bathe as a noun meaning "a swim" or "a dip" (a meaning unknown in American English, except through the term "bathing suit" aka "swimsuit"). C.S. Lewis is, of course, British.

Therefore, she cannot go for a "bathe" without knowing how to swim. She's telling a white lie to save face here. But that doesn't tell us what exactly she was doing, nor even what the narrator thought she was doing. It's up to the reader to fill in the details exactly.

  • Was she doing something else unrelated, such as using the bathroom? (The narrator, after all, doesn't seem to want to tell us what she was up to.)
  • Did she fall in? (That's embarrassing and she would be as wet as Digory who dressed after being in the stream without drying.)
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    +1 for the uncommon but correct use of bathe as a noun.
    – Chris H
    Nov 9, 2021 at 13:01
  • I’d say you can have a bathe without knowing how to swim, because like a dip, a bathe only requires that you go into the water – not that you actually swim in it. If you just go in waste-high and loll about for a bit, you’ve gone for a dip or a bathe, but not a swim. Dec 27, 2021 at 23:36
  • Don't you mean "using he batheroom"? Mar 10 at 16:30
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I have no idea why anybody would think to use "had a bath" as a euphemism for having a different kind of bath. It doesn't make any sense. Therefore, and I admit this is highly speculative, I would suggest that this must an extremely veiled poop joke.

To meet the explanatory requirements here, the issue must:

  1. Be something Lewis (or the narrator) thinks should not be directly discussed
  2. Be something Digory thinks should not be directly discussed, and perhaps also something he would not think about a girl doing
  3. Be something that a girl would do privately but avoid telling her traveling companion that she was doing. Particularly, she tells an obvious lie as a cover: that she's going swimming when she can't swim.

If not that, then it's just a weak joke of the Seinfeld form: What's the deal with women going to the bath? What's going on there? Let's not think too much about it.

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  • But it is still a joke of a girl going to the bathroom. To do whatever needs to be done, including taking a bath after. :)
    – jo1storm
    Nov 8, 2021 at 16:00
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    @jo1storm "Bathroom" as a euphemism for WC / lavatory / toilet is a North American usage, and C. S. Lewis was British. The connection to "had her bath" is extremely tenuous anyway.
    – IMSoP
    Nov 8, 2021 at 16:56
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    I have no idea why anybody would think to use "had a bath" as a euphemism for a poop!!
    – deep64blue
    Nov 8, 2021 at 18:19
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    @AlanDev - Because it's impolite to refer to a woman going to the toilet. Hence why why have expressions like "powdering her nose"
    – Valorum
    Nov 8, 2021 at 18:46
  • @Valorum One of my father's favorite expressions was "going to see a man about a horse".
    – Xerxes
    Nov 10, 2021 at 14:03
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What Polly did is not something Lewis as narrator really thinks it best not to ask about.

It's merely a ploy - a rather patronising ploy, too - to manipulate the young reader into feeling like a his co-conspirator.

"Everyone knows" children don't like washing, particularly not patches of skin with no mud or other obvious grime, which to their young eyes look perfectly clean.

"Everyone knows" nannies and nursemaids take great delight in finding dirty patches, particularly grime under the fingernails, mushrooms behind or potatoe shoots inside the ears.

Then with a nod or a wink, a "we know…" and a "…best not to ask…" Lewis appoints himself the young reader's arch ally in age-old adversity.

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