Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Betty Vanderwielen

Getting Your Money's Worth

Funky Phrases


SEELEY LAKE – If Millie Mae is gazing into the distance instead of engaging in the group’s conversation, her friend Joan might say, “A penny for your thoughts.” But why only a penny? Does Joan assume Millie’s thoughts aren’t worth any more than that? And will Joan really pay Millie a penny if Millie reveals all?

Probably not. The phrase is simply a way of pulling someone back into the conversation, or at least inviting them to share what seems more important to them at the moment. As for the worth of their thoughts, that involves a little history.

The earliest written use of the phrase, according to “The Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers, dates from 1522, though obviously it was in spoken use even earlier. Thomas Moore wrote in “Four Last Things,” “It often happeth [happens], that the very face sheweth [shows] the mind walking a pilgrimage, in such wise that other folk sodainly [suddenly] say to them a peny for your thought.”

Though the copper penny is the smallest and least valued U.S. coin, in Moore’s day a “peny” [plural: pence] was made of 12 grams of silver or 1/960 of a pound of silver. However, it was not the smallest coin of the realm. The half-penny, as its name states, was worth half as much and the farthing, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for fourthling, was worth one-fourth as much as a penny. So, in its original iteration, the phrase “a penny for your thoughts” was worth more than we give it credit for today.

Interestingly, Joan offers only a single penny for Millie Mae’s thoughts, but when Joan gives Millie advice or offers her opinion, Joan will probably value it at twice that penny amount as she adds the disclaimer, “that’s just my two cents worth.”

The history behind “two cents” is difficult to pin down. One theory is that at one time two cents was the cost of a regular postage stamp, so it really did cost that amount to mail someone your advice or opinion. Another theory is that two cents was once the ante for joining in a poker game so, used metaphorically, two cents was the cost of entering one’s opinion into a conversation.

Nor were pennies the only coins to represent something of low or dubious worth. The nickel came in for its fair share of scorn in the phrase “not worth a plugged nickel.” In the eighteenth century, when it still mattered that the amount of metal in a coin equaled the worth of that coin, a small disc, or plug, of silver was sometimes added to the center of the coin during minting to bring it up to the face value.

However, unscrupulous people tended to “unplug” the silver and replace it with a baser metal. After collecting a sufficient number of plugs, these unscrupulous people smelted them into a block of silver, which garnered them a goodly amount of money. But the person who failed to scrutinize his or her change and ended up with a basely plugged nickel soon discovered it was worth nothing.


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