drop a dime

Discuss word origins and meanings.

drop a dime

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Mar 13, 2006 7:47 am

In today’s New York Times in his discussion of the phrase clean your clock, William Safire mentioned another metaphorical phrase ‘drop a dime,’ which also appeared in an article in last week’s Time Magazine. (see 2006 quote below):

DROP A DIME / DROP THE DIME (on someone): To inform on or betray. Originally underworld lingo meaning to give information to the police, RAT ON, SQUEAL ON, SNITCH. The expression, still in use, is of U.S. origin and dates from the 1960s, when a public pay telephone call cost 10 cents and a dime was inserted (dropped) into the slot. Such a call could be made to the police by an anonymous informer without the fear of being traced. <“There’s no cheating in this class because someone is bound to drop a dime and tell the teacher.”> And DIME DROPPER, of course, refers to a ‘tipster,’ a ‘rat,’ a ‘snitch,’ ‘a stool pigeon.’

On Language by William Safire, February 22, 1998:

DROP THAT DIME: ‘When you hook a wire to somebody,’ complained Paul Begala, an aide to President Clinton angry at the investigative techniques of the office of independent counsel, ‘ . . . and then you turn and drop the dime in a phone and call the press, that’s not the kind of investigation people need.’

Most people under 40 would find that reference to a coin baffling. One does not get a dial tone with anything less than a quarter; in Washington and environs, the price of a local call from a coin-operated phone has just gone up to 35 cents. Is the President’s defender unaware of the ravages of inflation over the past generation?

No: he was speaking metaphorically, and metaphors do not take seasonal or even generational adjustment. To drop a dime, in underworld lingo, has meant ‘to inform the police,’ with the squealing being done over the telephone, often anonymously by the informer, who is referred to by the squealed-upon as a rat, fink, snitch or tipster.

The recipient of the call refers to the fink as a whistle-blower. Different figures of speech for different folks: a bad guy doing good inserts a coin to make a surreptitious call, making himself a dime dropper, while a good guy blows a piercing whistle, making himself a much admired (though sometimes prosecuted) whistle blower.

Mr. Begala has extended the coin metaphor from an informant calling the police to a police source calling the press. In so doing, he takes the shadiness attached to the dime-dropper ratting on his underworld buddies and imputes it to the police source speaking to the press. In his extension, however, the spinmeister has not spoiled the trope by trying to update it saying something awkward as ‘the manipulative investigator dropped a dime plus a quarter to leak to the media.’ That would spoil the effect.

That’s how we intentionally preserve anachronisms. Feel free to have your dialing machine leave a message on my answering machine about all this; it’s your nickel.
<1972 “Louis Trueluck, 41, ended his testimony yesterday in Black Panther raid case by denying . . . he gave police the information that led to the Dec. 4, 1969 raid. ‘That’s a lie,’ said Trueluck when asked by Defense Atty. John Coglan, ‘Did you DROP THE DIME on the chairman’s crib?’ ‘DROP THE DIME’ is Black Panther slang for inform. ‘Crib’ was the Panther apartment. The chairman was Fred Hampton, 21, Illinois chairman of the Black Panther Party.”—‘Chicago Tribune,’ 26 August, page 19>

<1985 “Not surprisingly, crime is a topic rich in slang expressions. To inform on someone is ‘TO DROP THE DIME’ or ‘to eat the cheese’ (probably derived from the slang ‘to rat’ on someone).”—‘Western Folklore,’ Vol. 44, No.1, January, page 10>

<1990 “In fact, Uncle Dixon says, on second thought, he will turn John in. . . . Dixon says he’s thought it over, the best course for him is just to DROP THE DIME on John.”—‘The Burden of Proof’ by Scott Turow, page 512>

<1997 “. . .‘you DROP A DIME, which means you call in a 'shots fired' alarm to 911. Sometimes you even fire your own gun. Then you wait for the shots-fired call to come over the radio, and you respond to your own call. It's all made up, but it makes the raid legal.’" [[article - How Cops Go Bad]]— ‘Time Magazine,' 15 December>

<2006 “Judas Iscariot, vilified in the Gospels as Jesus’ great betrayer, was not merely an Apostle–he was perhaps Christ’s closest confidant. Technically speaking, he did DROP A DIME on Jesus”—‘Time Magazine,’ 27 February>
(Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, American Heritage Dictionary of Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang)

Ken G – March 13, 2006

drop a dime

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Mar 13, 2006 8:09 am

'Dropping a dime' is not the only anachronistic but still-current reference I can think of that relates to now-superseded arrangements involving coins. In Britain, the expression 'to spend a penny' is still euphemistically used to describe going to the toilet, especially when away from the home. The reference is to using public lavatories (what Americans might refer to as public restrooms), some of which had cubicles with doors that required a penny (then 1/240 of £1) to be dropped in a coin slot in order to open. I am just old enough to remember the ones in my local shopping precinct when I was a child back in the 1960s. "I wouldn't give five bob for his chances" would probably also still be readily understood by many Britons (a 'bob' being the old colloquial term for a shilling, which became defunct with the decimalisation of Britain's currency in February 1971).
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

drop a dime

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Mar 13, 2006 11:00 am

.. not the full quid .. meaning intellectually challenged, springs to mind .. quid being the slang term for a pound .. which is strange in Aus because we no longer have pounds, shillings and pence, having changed to decimal currency some 40 odd years ago .. also amongst my generation you will still hear lend us a quid ..

WoZ of Aus 13/03/06
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

drop a dime

Post by Bobinwales » Fri Mar 17, 2006 12:57 pm

I remember those 40 odd years ago hearing a reasoned argument that "quid" was more Australian than "dollar", so should be adopted as the name for the (then) new currency.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

dropping dimes on

Post by JerrySmile » Sat Sep 27, 2008 2:45 pm


Dropping dimes on the media
does this mean sharing confidential information with the media, perhaps in order to compromise somone?

[It means his breed. It's about the grudge some senior Boston, Ma., police officers might hold against some talented and younger subordinates. Amputation is meant of course figuratively]

No, it wants time to think about what'd be the best thing to do, what'll not only cut you off at the ankles, or at least no higher'n the knees, but also perform the amputation in such a way that you won't be able to do anything about it afterwards, to get even. By dropping dimes on the media or something, so the papers every morning and the TV every night'll get all worked up about 'numerous reports of a crisis of morale among seasoned long-time members of State law enforcement agencies merged in the new Department.'

Bomber's Law, by George V. Higgins, p. 108
[my bolding]

Last edited by JerrySmile on Sun Sep 28, 2008 3:51 am, edited 1 time in total.

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by hsargent » Sat Sep 27, 2008 2:49 pm

Never heard this one. Dropping Dimes might be an old reference to calling on a pay phone.

An aside.... pay phone is a passing term that we old geezers will have to explain soon to the our younger members.
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by trolley » Sat Sep 27, 2008 5:05 pm

Jerry, I think it's more likely sharing information about the media. I always took "dropping a dime on someone" to mean turning them in. You make the phone call and rat them out.

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by trolley » Sat Sep 27, 2008 6:19 pm

Somehow, I thought this was an old reference and that I had first heard it watching those movies about mobsters in Chicago and New York. It can't be that old as I'm sure I can remember when a pay-phone only cost a nickel.

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by JerrySmile » Sun Sep 28, 2008 3:53 am

trolley wrote:Jerry, I think it's more likely sharing information about the media. I always took "dropping a dime on someone" to mean turning them in. You make the phone call and rat them out.
Sorry for not including the original quotation, which has just been inserted in my first posting. It doesn't support your assumption, IMO, even though I get your point on on.

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Sep 28, 2008 7:54 pm

Jerry, as well as Harry, and John, DROP A DIME, as mentioned above, derives from the idea of dropping a dime into a pay telephone – the going rate in the 1960s when the expression first appeared. The phrase acquired two meanings related to your question, but the 'media' in your posting title is just one of many possible objects of the phrase and is not an integral part of the expression.

DROP A (or THE) DIME (ON) or just DIME ON transitive verb phrase, slang [1960s and still in use] (Originally and chiefly U.S.): 1) To make a phone call. 2) To inform on or betray a person, to act as a informer; to report illegal activity, especially to the police; sing, squeal on, snitch on, stool on, rat on, fink on. 3) To explain, recount, pass on (disclose) sensitive information (in a non-criminal context); tip someone off on a hot scoop.”→To assist! [With the dime being an allusion to the (former) cost of a call made from a public telephone.]

(Oxford English Dictionary, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English)

In the case of your quote, I think you had it about right [So why did I write all this crap? (<;)] when you said: “sharing confidential information with the media, perhaps in order to compromise someone?” So it looks like definition (3) is the fit, unless the information revealed actually showed criminal activity, and then it would be (2).
<1966 “To inform on someone is called ‘DROPPING THE DIME.’” Ibid. “Words like ‘muska’ and ‘DIME-DROPPER’ don’t show up on middle class-oriented intelligence tests.”—New York Post, 24 August, page 30>

<1967 “DROP THE DIME—To fink, tell, crack on, squeal.”—Dictionary by Lit, page 12>

<1968 “I ain’t never seen so many stool pigeons in one block before in all my life. DROP A DIME ON you ‘for God can get the news.”—Howard Street by Nathan Heard, page 35>

<1968 “Now your gonna try an’ DROP A DIME ON me!”—Law & Order (film) by Wiseman>

<1970 “He wanted it badly enough to take the chance of being DIMED ON by some punk.”—The Vulture by Scott-Heron, page 38>

<1970-71 “Betraying, ‘DROPPING THE DIME,’ is the last resort of the persecuted, the ambitious, the threatened, the fearful, and occasionally the honest.” Ibid “Policemen still resort to force when they are challenged and feel they will not be ‘DIMED’ by the people involved.”—City Police by J. Rubinstein, pages 43, 324>

<1972 “DROP A DIME. To phone police, turn someone in.”—Don’t Even Try by Smith & Gay, page 201>

<1974 “There were rumors out about Milton having DROPPED DIMES on pushers who put shit on him.”—Cry Revenge by D. Goines, page 150>

<1978 “DROP A DIME—Make a phone call.”—CB (2nd edition) by Lieberman & Rhodes, page 298>

<1983 “You mean all these people have DROPPED THE TIME ON you and you're not going to make a statement on them?”—Washington Post, 14 January, page C5/2>

<1985 “So he says I DIMED OUT ON him. Bullshit.”—Glitz by E. Leonard, page 180>

<1987 “His prison buddy DIMED him.”—Echoes (NBC-TV) by Wambaugh>

<1988 “As soon as we're done I'm going to DROP A DIME ON one of our earnest young ecolawyers and see if we can sue the crap out of him.”—Zodiac by N. Stephenson, III. page 24>

<1997 “He could see the dusty bitch DROPPING DIME over a single vial.”—The Corner by Simon & Burns, page 104>

<2001 “‘Members are frustrated, disgruntled with their union, and now they are DROPPING THE DIME on them,’ King said.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 18 May>

<2004 “What happens when the wise guy in the back of the class becomes the teacher? If you are our secretary of state, you just keep firing spitballs. . . . Galvin [[Bill]] used to be famous for DROPPING DIMES TO reporters from the pay phones at the State House. Now he calls press conferences to take on the HMOs and the mutual fund industry.”—Boston Globe, 7 January>

<2006 “He [[comedian Dave Chappelle of Comedy Central]] 'fessed up about everything from his trip to Africa to smoking weed to his feelings on Hollywood, informing host James Lipton, that he was ‘DROPPING DIMES tonight’--in other words, telling tales out of school.”—Broadcasting & Cable, 2 January>

<2007 “Clearly campaigns are hardly innocents when it comes to DROPPING DIMES ON their competitors through whatever media necessary.”—Chicago Tribune, 2 February>

<2008 “Rosselli [[president of United HealthCare Workers West]] accused Stern [[president of Service Employees International Union]] of secretly negotiating with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on a watered-down health care reform plan . . . . When Stern moved to strip Rosselli of some of his powers, Rosselli loyalists retaliated - DROPPING THE DIME on alleged wrongdoing in a couple of powerful SEIU union locals in Los Angeles . . .”—San Francisco Chronicle, 28 September>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and archived sources)

Ken – September 28, 2008

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by JerrySmile » Mon Sep 29, 2008 12:58 am

Very nice article, Ken.

Thank you all.

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by hsargent » Mon Sep 29, 2008 2:29 pm

My memory matches Trolley that pay phone calls were a nickel for several decades. I know that they were a nickel in Louisiana in the 60's because it became a political issue. I don't know when that ended.

The progression of pay phone expenses escapes me. I remember a nickel and a quarter.

Another aside: you've missed an experience if you haven't heard the Western Song (America)
"Here's a quarter, call someone who cares!".
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by trolley » Mon Sep 29, 2008 5:16 pm

From the quotation, it seems that Jerry's assumption was correct. It still strikes me as an odd way to phrase it, though. They could drop dimes to the media about these people. In every instance that I have read or heard, it is the person upon whom the dime is being dropped that is getting fingered. Told on = dimed on. They can drop a dime on the cops by dropping a dime to the media.

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by JANE DOErell » Mon Sep 29, 2008 6:22 pm

(Old New York Times says pay phone rates in New York went from a dime to a quarter in 1984. The article did not say how long rates were at a dime in NYC but it does say rates in Connecticut went from a dime to a quarter after 39 years in 1992.)

The on part of the discussion seem curious to me as we in the US use on in many phrase like tattle on, rat on, squeal on etc. meaning to report someone more or less surreptitiously.

Re: dropping dimes on

Post by Tony Farg » Tue Sep 30, 2008 11:54 am

We use all of those, but then we also have "to grass UP" meaning roughly the same.

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