Bad Penny

It comes around.

Dear Word Detective:  Every now and then, I’ll come across the phrase “He’s like a bad penny, he always turns up.”  What was a “bad penny,” and what did it mean for them to “turn up”?  Did they curl on the edges? Were they heavier on one side, so they always landed face up? — Debbie.

Funny you should ask that.  We live out in the country, and, in addition to being surrounded by actual farms, we’re quite close to several roadside “farm stands,” which purport to sell fresh locally-grown produce.  But their real claim to fame must be possession of working time machines, because they’re selling some produce in mid-summer (e.g., sweet corn in June) that won’t be harvested around here for months.  Anyway, I have a burning desire to open my own farm stand, call it Bad Penny’s Produce, and make my motto “We always turnip.”

OK, never mind.  “A bad penny always turns up” is a very old proverb that dates back to at least the mid-18th century and is probably much older.  The general sense of the phrase is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the predictable, and often unwanted, return of a disreputable or prodigal person after some absence, or (more generally) to the continual recurrence of someone or something.”  A “bad penny” is a person whose presence is unwelcome on any occasion, but whom fate perversely employs to torment you by making said person appear (“turn up”) repeatedly, often at the worst possible times.  The ne’er-do-well nephew who appears only at family weddings, funerals and holiday dinners, never invited but always mysteriously materializing at your elbow and asking for a loan, is the classic “bad penny.”  Former romantic flames can also be counted as “bad pennies” if fortune (or fanaticism) dictates too many accidental reunions (“Don’t stalk him! If you turn up like a bad penny every time he leaves the house, he’ll think you’re a bunny boiler,” Cosmo Girl, 2004).  (“Bunny boiler,” of course, is a reference to the behavior of the character played by Glenn Close in the 1987 film “Fatal Attraction.”)

A “penny” to us here in the US (and to many of you furriners) is a coin worth one cent (from the Latin “centum,” one hundred), or 1/100th of a dollar.  The origins of “penny” are uncertain, but it’s a very old word with relatives in many languages, and may have come from a root meaning “pledge.”

Pennies today are viewed as nearly worthless by many people (although not so many as a year ago), but when the term “bad penny” first appeared in the 18th century, pennies were serious money.  This made them ripe targets for counterfeiters, and to reach into your pocket or purse and discover that you had ended up with such a counterfeit coin, a “bad” penny, was a depressing and annoying experience.  The only recourse available if you were stuck with a “bad penny” was to try to spend it as quickly as possible and hope that an inattentive shopkeeper would take it.  But because everyone was trying to unload their “bad pennies” this way, according to the common wisdom of the time, your odds of encountering one, or even the very same one you had gotten rid of a week earlier, were quite high.  Thus “bad penny” became an idiom meaning “an unwanted thing that keeps showing up.”

18 comments on this post.
  1. rebecca:

    I love this type of information – how lovely it is available on the internet. “Why we say it” – a favorite book – doesn’t have everything!

  2. Badpennypress:

    It is like you’re a cashier trying both not to take excesse Canada’s quarters and trying to get rid of canadian quarters out of your drawer that customers passed off as many as they can in the us. They are used interchangeably but are not usually worth exactly the same.
    so they keep coming back
    lake canadian quarters

  3. David Sowd:

    What a wonderful, thorough explanation. I agree with Rebecca — you’re doing great work with this site!

  4. Wndndrsn:

    Sayings from my past I rarely hear.

  5. Isasater:

    Dear Word Detective,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the time, energy and obvious enthusiasum you put into this site. I could spend hours and hours reading and enjoying your work.
    Again, thank you, thank you thank you.

  6. Dominic:

    That’s a great explanation. I just heard the expression used on the TV show Frisky Dingo. That show, and another show called Archer, both have really great idiom.

  7. Carol:

    Often heard in my growing-up years. British imperial currency was used in New Zealand before changing to metric dollars and cents, when the proverbial penny had many a last chance. It was too big for use as counters in BINGO games.

  8. Carol:

    Change over day was 10th of July 1967. Then just another beaten out ‘bent penny’, would no longer fit the slot. Even for a phone call!

  9. What's up with this site using the BHW name?:

    […] is "shoemoney". Bad penny is old school for someone that keeps showing up unwelcome. http://www.word-detective.com/2010/03/bad-penny/ Here is about the last time I heard of Shoemoney; when he thought he was bad-ass and was going to […]

  10. adele:

    Will Smith just used the term “bad penny” in Hitch which brought me to this informative site. Thank you! I have heard the expression and just read your detailed explanation to my 25 year old daughter who had never heard “bad penny”. Very very interesting!

  11. Kuntina:

    I always wondered. Thanks.

  12. Echo:

    i’m 59 and have heard this expression all my life and really never gave it a thought. but today the thought popped into my head,”Hmmm? I wonder where that came from/started out?”
    thank you so much for your explanation! i don’t imagine that tracking down the origin of something like this is easy? so thank you again for not only digging this up but also for sharing it!

  13. Balancing Your Work/Life Balance | Enroll In Your Life:

    […] back to normal.  But those long, busy days will return.  They always do.  Like a bad penny (whatever that means).  And when they do, I need to remember that my job is not my life.  It’s a part of it, and an […]

  14. brian marsom:

    Thankyou- WD- I agree with previous replies- you are an inspiration and that dearly is passed on-
    Your comments will help with my research for a short story competition- The story is based on a real character who used to tell us boys in the Wesley Boys Home in Mt. Albert, Auckland NZ-a story about The Bad Penny.
    Just wish I could remeber the stories but will daydream on it- Tten get on with the task- Thanks mate.

    regards BRIAN

  15. Like a Bad Penny… | Sued51's Blog:

    […] know what they say about a “bad penny”? You don’t? I had to look it up as I was writing this. Not sure it fits exactly, because it is not turning up multiple times, unwanted…but this […]

  16. Mike B:

    People can be looked at as “bad pennies.” A trouble makers, does inappropriate things or behaviors.

  17. Thomas Moore Todaro:

    I’m 52 and have been using this phrase literally for decades. But, it’s really funny for me (inside joke) because I am an avid collector of old U.S. error coins, particularly old pennies. So, the phrase really does roll outta my mouth several times a month. LOL!!!

  18. R Den Green:

    Thank you, Mr. Morris/TWD, for this marvelous website and information. It certainly enriches our lives to know the history of the words, idioms, and colloquialisms we use.

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