For those unfamiliar, “to coin a phrase” traditionally means “to create a new phrase.” These days, “coin a phrase” has also taken on a new meaning, first documented around the mid-twentieth century: “to introduce a cliché sentiment.”
Funny enough, we have no idea who first coined the phrase “to coin a phrase,” but there are some clues as to how the phrase evolved.
The verb “to coin” first came about when referring to the actual process of making money. Around the fourteenth century, the noun “coin” actually meant “wedge,” and referred to the wedge-shaped dies that were used to stamp the disks that were then “coined,” and made into official currency.
From there, the verb “to coin” started to refer to anything that was made into something new. By the sixteenth century, coining new words became quite popular, though it wasn’t always considered a positive, innovative thing. In 1589, George Puttenham wrote in The Arte of English Poesie: “Young schollers not halfe well studied… will seeme to coigne fine wordes out of the Latin.”
As you can see, some people looked down at word and phrase coiners. If you’ve ever been published on a major website, you’ll know that today a very vocal minority still feel the same way about any innovative use of grammar, creation of words, or (God-forbid) typos.
The greatest of all scourges to Grammar Nazis and the snootier members of academia was Shakespeare, who ultimately came up with many different words and phrases that are still in use today. He didn’t coin the phrase “to coin a phrase,” but he did use “coin words” in 1607 in his play Coriolanus: “So shall my Lungs Coine words till their decay.”
Of course, up until this point, we’ve been talking about coining words rather than phrases. “To coin a phrase” popped up quite late in the game, at least the first known documented instance of it. The earliest published instance of “coin a phrase” appears in The Southport American, a newspaper in Wisconsin, in 1848:
Had we to find… a name which should at once convey the enthusiasm of our feelings towards her, we would coin a phrase combining the extreme of admiration and horror and term her the Angel of Assassination.
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- There are some people who believe that the proper phrase is “to quoin a phrase.” Quoin was once a spelling variation of coin, but took on its own meaning in the sixteenth century: “cornerstone.” It was also the name of wedges that printers used to hold lines of type together on a printing press. While the word is quite similar to coin, it most certainly is not the origin of “coin a phrase,” as the “create” meaning of coin came about well before quoin took on its meanings.
- Printing presses gave us the word “cliché,” which comes from the French word cliquer, which referred to the clicking sound made by the stamps on the metal typefaces during printing. How did this come to mean “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought?” Printer’s used “cliché” as jargon for “stereotype block.” From there, the evolution of the meaning of the word followed closely with “stereotype,” the latter of which was originally a “method of printing from a plate,” from the French “stéréotype” in the eighteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, this had come to mean “image perpetuated without change.” This further morphed by the early twentieth century to mean as it does today.
- The word “phrase” was coined in 1530 by John Palsgrave, a language scholar. He confused everyone by giving it two different meanings: today’s more common meaning, which is “a small group of words expressing one meaning,” and “manner or style of speech or writing.”
- “To turn a phrase” is related to the second meaning of “phrase.” It’s believed that “turn of/a phrase” is related to turning wood to craft a beautiful woodwork, with creating a well-crafted phrase being a type of art—sort of like working wood. This sense of turn can also be found in the phrase “well-turned,” which was used to describe a woman’s shapely ankles.
- Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare did not coin the phrase “dead as a doornail,” though he did coin a huge number of other phrases, and popularized many more, with “dead as a doornail” being one he popularized. One he did create was “like the dickens” or “what the dickens.” If you’re wondering what a “dickens” is, dickens was initially an oath meaning “devil,” possibly a shortened version of “devilkins.” So it was really just another way of saying “what the devil.”
- The Southport American mentioned above did not coin the phrase “Angel of Assassination.” This name was applied to Charlotte Corday, a Frenchwoman involved in the French Revolution, posthumously in 1847 by Alphonse de Lamartine. Corday murdered the radical Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat by stabbing him in the chest while he was in the bathtub.
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