Dimes and Pennies and Other Change

There’s a lot I love about the English language. It’s complex, beautiful, and odd in a becoming way. But I imagine it would be a nightmare to try to learn. For my multilingual readers, I just want you to know I’m super impressed with you and a little apologetic about the weird nuances of English.

One of the things I love most about English is that I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I think I’ve mastered it. And that’s coming from a writer. I’m not just a casual user who reads and speaks English cause it’s my native method of communication —I’m a big English nerd. I study and explore and dig into the weirdnesses of the language. Grammar, etymology, all that jazz. It’s kinda my thing. And even with all that, some things still boggle me. Like when did people decide they needed a word for the word “word?” (Probably after reading a sentence like that.) Or why do though and cough not rhyme but pony and balogna do? Or do true synonyms even exist if every word actually has its own distinct and unique meaning and usage?

Recently in my quest for English nerdom, I’ve been really into discovering where sayings and turns of phrase come from. You know, those little things everyone says and seems to understand but really if you asked them why it meant what it did they’d have no clue. For example: recently I caught myself saying that something “turned up like a bad penny.” That made me pause. I know what I meant by it—someone or something kept showing up where it wasn’t wanted. But what’s with the mention of the penny? And why is it bad?

Turns out—according to my good friend Google– that the saying originated back in the 1900-somethings when pennies were worth a lot more than they are today. Since they were serious spending money, lots of shady characters were making counterfeit pennies. So if you reached into your pocket and found a fake penny, it was super annoying and you would try to spend it as quick as possible and hope someone would take it as real money. Unfortunately, everyone was trying to get rid of bad pennies, so your odds of encountering them were pretty high. So maybe you got rid of a fake penny today, but tomorrow you get stuck with another one–or even the same one you already had. Hence the expression – a bad penny is an “unwanted thing that keeps showing up.”

There ya go. You learned something new. You’re welcome.

Another saying—also having to do with coinage for some odd reason—that’s been bouncing around in my head recently: change on a dime. Every time I get dramatic and worried about the future and what am I doing with my life (which happens more often than you might think) my Mom likes to remind me, “At your age, life can turn on a dime.” The meaning is clear—things can change quickly, abruptly, and in unexpected directions, but why is there a dime in there?

Glad you asked.

This saying has its origins in the realm of high-performance vehicles–ships, airplanes, cars, etc., and their ability to change course on very little notice and often at high speeds. Since the dime is the smallest coin in US currency, being able to turn “on a dime” implies that the vehicle is so awesome that it only needs a space the size of a dime in order to execute a change in course.

Just call me Queen Random Fact Lady. (Actually don’t, that’s weird.)

On the subject of loose change: Traditionally I try to keep my wallet empty of change—it’s heavy and jingley and awkward to fish out. People always give you weird looks when you try to pay for things with it. (Which reminds me of that time I graduated from high school and my sister and brother in law gave me 50 bucks entirely in one dollar coins, all wrapped in burlap because they wanted to give me “pirate treasure” as a present. Definitely got some stares while trying to spend that stuff!)  Despite my commitment to a change-free wallet, right now it’s pretty heavily weighed down with a handful of currently unspendable coins—amounting about £8 and 3.50. The presence of that particular loose change serves as a constant reminder that life is changing. More specifically, as can be inferred by the presence of pounds and euros in an American coin purse, my location is changing.  

Life update time!! In about six weeks I’ll be hopping onto a shamrock-bedecked Aer Lingus jet headed out across the Atlantic. From September through Christmas, I’ll be back in my beloved and beautiful Emerald Isle, living, working, and writing. (For those of you who are worried about me, I will not try to live for three months on £8 and 4… that’s just my head-start European cash that’ll buy me a cup of coffee in the airport and a bus ticket to my house. Hopefully. How much is coffee in Dublin these days?)

When I first started planning this trip, I was pretty convinced there was nothing in the world I wanted more than to disappear into the Irish mist and never return. I figured I’d fade into contented obscurity as a tea-drinking shepherdess and live happily ever after.  (Ok, maybe not really, but a gal can dream, right?) When I told my roomie (who will be getting her graduate degree in Ireland at the same time I’ll be working) that I got the Ireland job and we’d be moving to Belfast together, we held hands in the kitchen, jumping up and down together and squealing with the unbridled joy of a couple of happy piglets. It was like a scene from a movie, when the protagonist lands the publishing deal, or scores the lead role in the school play, or wins the election. Glorious, untameable delight.

Fast forward to now, 39 days from liftoff.  I’m still excited, still counting down, and still daydreaming about moss-wrapped forests and impossibly green hills. I can’t wait to get my hands wrapped around a very large cuppa, breathing in its fragrant steam. I long to feel the spray of north sea breakers on my face. I’m excited to see sheep again–we don’t have them here where I live and I love the little guys.  I smile at the thought of being the one in the crowd with the foreign accent. (A “posh-American” accent, as a very dear Irishman once told me. I still have no idea what “posh-American” is but I’ll take it.)

And yet, there’s a catch. In spite of all the excitement and anticipation about moving back across the Atlantic, some things have changed. I’ve let go of the wild shepherdess dream, for one thing.  Ireland is no longer the ultimate goal, the culmination of my adventuresomeness. It’s merely a step in a lifelong adventure. I’m thrilled to go on my trip, and even more thrilled to come back home.

Why, you ask? Because my mom was right. (Aren’t moms always right though?) Life can, and does, change on a dime, and when you least expect it, too. My hopes and dreams and plans that I have today are not the same ones I held last week, not to mention when I graduated back in May. And they hardly even resemble the plans I had back in March when I decided to go to Ireland!  

A whole lot can change in a short amount of time. And I have a feeling that as wonderful as my 3 months abroad promise to be, there are even greater adventures waiting for me right here.

You can add that to the list of random facts about change.

9 thoughts on “Dimes and Pennies and Other Change”

  1. Thanks for the education and the news about your new adventure! I envy you… Beginning a new and exciting chapter in your life. I remember those days and the excitement they brought. What will your job be in Ireland?


    1. Thanks Walt! I’ll be working as a staff member for a university study abroad program. I’m planning to blog a lot while I’m there, so hopefully you’ll get to hear a lot about it. 🙂


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