A penny for your thoughts

If you’ve ever heard someone say ‘a penny for your thoughts’, it’s fairly obvious what they mean. But do you know how the saying originated? Or what it really means?

Discovering the exact origin of an idiom is not an exact science. Often, a phrase such as this may have been bandied about for years before it was recorded on paper (or in stone). However, in this instance, we can ascertain who was the first to publish it and when.

In 1522, Sir Thomas More’s book about meditations on death, God, pain and spiritual diseases, Four Last Things, was published. The following passage, from which the first written utterance of the term was recorded, reads:

“As it often happeth that the very face sheweth the mind walking a pilgrimage, in such wise that, not without some note and reproach of such vagrant mind, other folk suddenly say to them, ‘A penny for your thought.’”

So, from the passage, it seems an intelligent man is keeping his wisdom to himself and is beckoned by the townspeople to speak his mind. They even offer him money to do so.

It is believed the phrase was popularised after 1546 in a book called A dialogue conteinying the nomber in effect of all the proverbes in the Englishe tongue, which would later become known more simply as The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood.

Mr Heywood was a collector of proverbs and sayings, and this same book contains such famous phrases as ‘Rome was not built in one day’ and ‘all that is well ends well’.

Now, paying someone a penny for the sharing and subsequent distribution of their intellectual property may not sound like a lot of money, but if we were to estimate an equivalent modern-day value (including inflation), that penny looks more like around $3.35. Still, hardly worth opening your mouth for now, is it? I think I’ll keep my thoughts to myself!

Related articles:
Why ‘beat around the bush’?
Have you been caught ‘red handed’?
How did ‘steal one’s thunder’ originate?

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