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.”

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