a pretty penny

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

a pretty penny

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 02, 2012 7:31 pm

In a conversation the other day, someone used the expression “it costs a pretty penny.” My father used to use it, but I haven’t heard it around for quite some time and wondered if it was one of those near-dead expressions. It’s not. I guess as Nat King Cole sang, I Don’t get around much anymore.

A PRETTY PENNY: A considerable sum of money; cost – ‘an arm and a leg.’ That fur coat must have cost a pretty penny.

Etymology: The origin of this phrase is uncertain but it is often attributed to the special gold pennies, worth 20 silver pennies, that Henry III had coined in 1257. Since they were more valuable than the silver pennies, they became known as pretty pennies. (Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, American Heritage Dictionary, Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés)

However, since the term ‘pretty penny’ didn’t appear in print until 1710 one may wonder why it took the better part of five centuries from the time the coins were minted for word of them to show up on the written page, and whether Henry’s coins were still in circulation, or were even thought much about, by the 18th century. But, as Wiz often points out words can hang around for hundreds of years – even thousands – in the spoken word before they ever make it into print! (<;)

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1710 “Why here may be a pretty Penny towards, if the Devil don't cross it.”—The Man’s Bewitch’d by S. Centlivre, i. i. page 3>

<1780 “. . .if these ar’n’t mock diamonds round it, it will bring a pretty penny.”—The Deaf Lover by F. Pilon, page 15>

<1860 “That watered-silk she had on cost a pretty penny.”—The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, I. ii.i. page 256>

<1885 “Then the captain might still make a pretty penny on Amita.”—Maruja by Bret Harte, i>

<1915 “It must have cost you a pretty penny. It's lucky you can afford it.”—Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, lxxiii, page 377>

<1955 (advertisement “You’d think that rolls with mouth-watering flavor and feather-light tenderness of MILLBROOK Chef Rolls would cost a pretty penny! But No! You buy them for no more than you pay for the ordinary kind!”–Galveston Daily News (Texas), 22 November, page 6> [[But are they whole-wheat and organic?]]

<1994 “Jean films the boy hanging from a skyscraper; Sami later gibes that, had he fallen, Jean could make a pretty penny selling the footage.”—Film Comments, January-February, page 75/3>

<2011 (article title) “Ugly Christmas Sweaters Turn A Pretty Penny”—NPR, 20 December>

Ken G – January 2, 2012 (penny foolish and pound wise)
Post actions:

Re: a pretty penny

Post by Wizard of Oz » Tue Jan 03, 2012 3:25 am

.. Ken it would seem that the expression pretty penny arrived Downunder with the early ball and chain colonists .. I have entries in various newspapers in Aus and NZ from >>
Star ((Lyttleton, NZ))- Aug 8, 1876
... which really ought to be very grateful to this journal for putting it on the track of the " Balham Mystery," by which it must have turned a very pretty penny.

Bay Of Plenty Times - Sep 22, 1877 To this must be added gas, printing, wages of House attendants, the expenses of the prosecution (which, I hear, will be another £250) and then there will be a pretty penny for the country to pay.

Wanganui Chronicle - Aug 10, 1878 It is better than spending it on Ministerial jauntings and junketings, which last year must have cost a very pretty penny.

Timaru Herald - Nov 1, 1880 ... but we think it would be rather hard to show how they were of service, while there is no doubt whatever that they "cost the colony a pretty penny.

Sydney Morning Herald - May 17, 1898
...that if it bears out the views of Mr. Coghlan that federation is going to cost New South Wales a pretty penny, their chances of carrying the measure will be seriously jeopardized.
.. and it has continued in use to the current day ..
TVNZ - Oct 28, 2010 Bond car earns pretty penny.

CNET Australia - 12 Dec 2011 Then there's the cost considerations — for example, communication with the folks back home can cost a pretty penny when you're roaming via your home mobile network.

Land - Dec 21, 2011 Howzat: Pink lambs raise a pretty penny at Trangie
.. Ken I agree that several centuries is a bit of a stretch .. surely this use of pretty has nothing to do with beauty but more to do with the way that pretty is used as an adverbial intensifier in phrases such as >> pretty much, pretty true, pretty good etc..

WoZ who is pretty much over celebrating
Post actions:
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: a pretty penny

Post by trolley » Tue Jan 03, 2012 3:46 am

...not to be confused with WoZ who is pretty much over-celebrating.
Post actions:

Re: a pretty penny

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Jan 03, 2012 4:45 am

Wizard of Oz wrote:Ken it would seem that the expression pretty penny arrived Downunder with the early ball and chain colonists
I had always assumed that most of them were single.
Post actions:
Signature: -- Looking up a word? Try OneLook's metadictionary (--> definitions) and reverse dictionary (--> terms based on your definitions)8-- Contribute favourite diary entries, quotations and more here8 -- Find new postings easily with Active Topics8-- Want to research a word? Get essential tips from experienced researcher Ken Greenwald

Re: a pretty penny

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Jan 03, 2012 5:28 am

The ball-and-chain colon never really caught on Downunder, where over-celebrating, as has been said before, did however give rise to the inverted coma (indeed, as Erik says, mostly single).
It may be surmised that agony colonists vented their spleen under the influence of ensuing hang-unders.
Post actions:

End of topic.
Post Reply