Coin a Phrase

The words “to coin” can be used as a verb with a literal meaning to mint a coin. In 14th century Europe, the term “coining” was associated with inventing words. In the late 16th century, “coining a phrase” implied the invention of a series of words used to complete a sentence.

Have you ever given thought to the number of expressions that refer to money? Take a look at the phrases to learn how currency plays an important role in our everyday language. Would you like to add an expression to the list?

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  • Origins of…

    The words “to coin” can be used as a verb with a literal meaning to mint a coin. In 14th century Europe, the term “coining” was associated with inventing words. In the late 16th century, “coining a phrase” implied the invention of a series of words used to complete a sentence.

  • A penny saved is a penny earned

    “A penny saved is a penny earned” first appeared in the Benjamin Franklin/Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1733. Franklin authored the almanac under the pseudonym Richard Saunders. Franklin was stressing the value of money and urging his readers to not waste their money on non-essentials.

  • In for a penny, in for a pound

    The phrase “in for a penny, in for a pound” was popular slang used in the 1970s. The street meaning of the phrase is that “if you participate even slightly in something, you are fully involved in the consequences.” It was first coined in Britain, hence the pound instead of the dollar.

  • Not worth a red cent
    “Not worth a red cent” originated in the 1820s. It refers to an item or individual being either worthless or useless. Some unscrupulous people would take silver dimes, quarters, half dollars, or dollars and cut a hole of metal out and replace it with an inferior/base metal before passing it on. For someone to actually take a nickel and plug it would seem ridiculous as it’s already such a low denomination made of base metals.
  • A bad penny always turns up
    “A bad penny always turns up” dates back to the mid-18th century. It is defined in the Oxford English dictionary to mean “the predictable and often unwanted, return of a dis.” The person no one wants around is the person who is most commonly seen in public settings.
  • Penny ante

    “Penny Ante” was first coined around 1865 to describe an incredibly minuscule sum a poker player can bet. Today, an ante is referred to as a basic; the basic is one cent.

  • Costs a pretty penny

    The phrase “costs a pretty penny” means an item costs a large sum of money. It refers to special gold pennies minted by Henry III in 1257. One gold penny was equivalent to 20 silver pieces.

  • Don’t take any wooden nickels

    Wooden nickels were first introduced after the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The phrase “don’t take any wooden nickels” translates today to mean: be cautious in your dealings and gambling. You could be cheated out of your money if you take the wooden nickel.

  • Brother can you spare a dime?

    Taken from the 1932 musical Americana, the song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” is about a WWI veteran who is facing hard times during the Great Depression. The song reached number one twice on the charts through recordings by Bing Crosby and Rundy Valles.

  • A dime a dozen

    The phrase “a dime a dozen” originates from newspaper ads dating back to the 1800s. At the time, the phrase was taken for its literal meaning, a dozen of one item costs a dime. Today we use it to describe something or someone as cheap and inferior.

  • Phony as a $3 bill

    The $3 bill was initially minted by Massachusetts and the thirteen colonies. It stayed in circulation until the Civil War when it was mainly circulated throughout the Confederacy, but was quickly taken out once the Union Army won the war. Numerous fakes of the $3 bill have been printed which led to the origination of “Phony as a three dollar bill.” As the saying goes, if you come across a $3 dollar bill, it is most likely a fake.

  • What’s the sixty-four dollar question?

    The phrase “what’s the sixty-four dollar question” originates from the popular radio show “Take it or Leave it.” The show ran from 1941-1948. Sixty-four dollars was the highest award a contestant could win. Today, the phrase refers to an important or crucial issue.

  • To nickel and dime someone

    The first known use of the phrase “to nickel and dime someone” was in 1961. It was very popular slang throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It means to be extremely cheap with someone to the point of annoyance.

  • I feel like a million bucks

    The phrase “I feel like a million bucks” was first coined in the early 1900s when a variety of items only cost a nickel. At the time, a million dollars was believed to be the highest amount of money any person could obtain. When you feel like a million bucks, you feel great, confident and successful.

  • To turn/stop on a dime

    “To turn/stop on a dime” originated from Carl Van Vechter’s novel Heaven written in 1926. The dime is the smallest and thinnest U.S. coin. To turn on a dime would require extreme precision.

  • The almighty dollar

    The exact phrase “the almighty dollar” was first developed in the early 19th century. Various forms of the phrase, however, were developed much earlier that that. The first documented version was in 1616 in a poem written by English poet Ben Johnson. In his poem, Johnson refers to “almightie gold.” The phrase is meant to stress the importance and value of money.

  • Top Dollar

    The phrase “top dollar” first appeared in the 1970s. It refers to a very expensive material item or a large amount of money willing to be paid for a material item. For example, “I’ll pay top dollar for those shoes.”

  • Dollars to doughnuts

    The expression “dollars to doughnuts” has been used in America since the late nineteenth century. The phrase implies being so confident in your decision that you are willing to bet a dollar against something of no perceived value. The first literary example was published in an Ellery Queen novel in the 1920s, “I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts Fields played the stock market or the horses.”

  • Sawbuck

    The word “sawbuck” is English slang for a $10 bill. It originated between 1840-1850. It was coined for the sawbuck’s similarity to the Roman numeral X.

  • Two-bit

    The term “two-bit” refers to something (or someone) that is inferior or worthless: a two-bit actor. When a Spanish 8 reales was cut into quarters to make small purchases, each quarter was worth two reales or two-bits. In the United States, foreign coins were legal tender until 1857 and a Spanish two-bit would be the equivalent of twenty five cents.

    Thanks to Max Spiegel for the submission.

  • Penny wise, pound foolish

    A phrase meaning that a person is careful with small amounts of money but careless with big expenditures. At the time this expression was first used, a British pound was worth 240 pennies. A pound is now worth 100 pennies or pence.

  • Chiseler

    Dating back to ancient civilizations, coins have been made from precious metals. Struck by hand, ancient and many medieval coins were not uniform in shape and lent themselves to “shaving” or “chiseling” by unscrupulous citizens. By taking a small amount from the edge of each coin before spending it, a person could amass enough silver or gold to sell for a profit in no time. While the history behind the word “chiseler” is somewhat obscure, it is believed that the word received its meaning from the act of chiseling metal away from coins. Reeding was introduced to a coin’s edge to discourage chiseling.

  • Just joshing

    Josh Tatum was a deaf mute who was able to use an oversight of the Mint to his advantage. In 1883, the Mint produced the newly designed Liberty nickel. On the reverse of the coin, the design featured a Roman numeral “V” but nowhere did the word “cents” appear. Realizing an opportunity, Mr. Tatum had several of the newly minted cents electroplated with a thin layer of gold. Tatum then traveled to various stores, buying items with a value less than 5 cents. When the clerk rang the item up, Tatum handed over one of the gold plated nickels. The store clerks usually assumed that the coin was a $5 gold piece and would give Mr. Tatum change. Tatum amassed quite a bit of money before being caught by police. He was found innocent of charges since by being mute, Tatum never represented that the coin was a $5 gold piece.

    The Mint soon realized the error of their ways and redesigned the nickel to show the word “cents” later in the same year. Josh Tatum’s flirt with the Law gave birth to the phrase, “I’m just joshing you.”

  • My two-cents worth

    An American expression that is taken from the British “my tuppence worth.” The phrase is used to offer a sense of politeness and humility to a statement that may seem contentious. It is believed that the phrase originated during the days of $0.02 postage when someone had the ability to express their opinion in the form of a letter to someone of importance.

  • Greenbacks

    Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase suggested to Congress in 1862 that the government issue its own paper currency. On February 25, 1862, Congress passed the Legal Tender Act. In response to the act, $150 million in Treasury notes were printed. Green ink was used on one side of the notes and the popular nickname “Greenbacks” began. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing states that green ink was originally used because unlike other colors, the protective green ink could not be removed from authentic notes. The measure foiled counterfeiters who used black and white photography to produce counterfeit currency.

  • A penny for your thoughts

    The phrase, “A penny for your thoughts” first appears in the book Proverbes by John Heywood published in 1546. The book was re-printed in 1906. Figuring in the rate of inflation in the United States, a thought that cost a penny in 1906 would cost about 19 cents today.

  • Cold hard cash

    The term “cold hard cash” was coined by merchants and traders who were used to handling coins that, because they had a high gold and silver content, were warm and soft and did not wear very well. When more durable metals came into use it was generally noticed that they were cold and hard.

    In the cut and thrust of commerce, a lot of transactions rely on the use of checks and various forms of credit. Where these are not favored, the phrase “cold hard cash” applies to both coins and notes which are immediately available, or ready, as a form of payment.

  • Spend a penny

    When English public restrooms were first opened they had locks on the doors that cost a penny to open so you could use the facilities. Women in particular would say they had to ‘spend a penny’ when they had to excuse themselves to use the toilet.

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