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What Does "A Penny for your Thoughts" Mean?

"A penny for your thoughts" is a phrase meant to convey curiosity over what an individual is thinking about.
Front and back of a US penny.
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  • Originally Written By: Ken Black
  • Revised By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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The saying "a penny for your thoughts" is an English idiom simply asking people to volunteer their opinions on an issue being discussed. Though no payment actually changes hands, the phrase has become a regular part of the English vernacular. In modern usage, it is often stated as an indirect way of asking what someone is thinking about or what is bothering them. Its origins are fairly unknown though it dates back to at least the end of the Middle Ages.

Meaning

This phrase is basically a proposal, and the speaker is offering to pay to hear the listener's thoughts. It is an idiom, of course, and not meant literally so no real payment generally takes place. The idea, however, is that the person who says "a penny for your thoughts," wants to know what the listener is thinking about and is showing interest through a symbolic offer of payment. It is also commonly used when someone seems to be deep in thought or troubled by an idea, as a polite way of giving the person an opportunity to express his or her ideas or concerns.

Value

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When the saying originated, a penny was worth a lot more than it is in the 21st Century. Therefore, a "penny for your thoughts" likely indicated the thoughts were more valuable to those imploring the listener to give them than they are by today’s standards. The phrase is usually meant as a symbolic gesture and the actual value should typically not be considered. This loss of value can be used derisively, however, often implied through tone of voice; someone can use this phrases in a sarcastic way to indicate that someone's idea is bad or worth a penny in modern value.

Earliest Recorded Usage

A "penny for your thoughts" is a phrase generally credited to a man by the name of John Heywood, who was born sometime just before the 16th century. During his life, he was a writer who penned many plays and a book in 1546, known as A dialogue conteinying the nomber in effect of all the proverbes in the Englishe tongue. As English spelling has changed over the years, later publications were frequently shortened to The Proverbs of John Heywood.

It is likely Heywood did not actually come up with the phrase "a penny for your thoughts." Rather, he was simply the first person, or the earliest person found so far, to have chronicled the phrase in written form. The actual origins of the term are unknown, and since his book was simply a collection of common proverbs and expressions, it was probably familiar to people in the mid 1500s.

Similar Expressions

Another phrase similar to "penny for your thoughts" is offering "your two cents" after making a statement. Someone might give his or her opinion and then say, "that's my two cents," to indicate the value of his or her idea. While, much like a penny, "two cents" is relatively low in value now, it would have been more valuable at one time and the expression is used in much the same way.

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Discuss this Article

literally45
Post 10

@fify-- There is no exact date for this idiom, but it's supposed to have come about between 1400s and 1600s. Back then, a penny was worth a lot. I think I had once seen a calculation of what a penny would have been worth back then, and the writer estimated that it would have been around $40 today. If the estimation is correct, that's not bad at all.

I agree with the other comment here that this is a great idiom because it truly shows that you have a vested interest in what the other person is thinking. In fact, you're even willing to pay them for it. It shows that you care for them, it's nice.

I heard "a penny for your thoughts" in a song recently, so the new generation is familiar with this saying. I just hope that they don't misunderstand this saying and think that it implies their thoughts are worth little.

candyquilt
Post 9

Did the phrase "my two cents" come from this idiom? They sound very similar.

fify
Post 8

It's so obvious that this idiom is not new. A penny has no value these days, people don't even bother to pick pennies up from the ground. If this idiom had been coined today, it would have meant something different and it certainly wouldn't have encouraged anyone to share their thoughts. On the contrary, it would probably discourage them.

anon115417
Post 5

Where I live not many people say "Penny for your thoughts," but when people do say it they tend to just want to know what's on your mind.

I find often when your down and someone asks what's wrong I always say nothing, or when someone asks how I am, I always say good, but when someone says to me "A penny for your thoughts," it makes me think about the answers I give and even if I didn't intend to open up to the person talking to me when they say something that makes me think, I almost always do.

anon109513
Post 4

Our thoughts are really the only thing we own, as such, making them extremely valuable to someone who wishes to also own them. Thus the offer to actually pay for them.

baileybear
Post 3

@empanadas - Saying, "A penny for your thoughts," is like asking, "What's on your mind?" That is the simplest way to think about it. I agree with you that it's more used now whenever someone is concerned about another person rather then just asking their opinion - like it was originally intended.

bbpuff
Post 2

@empanadas - You can use the phrase several different ways and as the article states, when it first originated a penny was worth a lot more. However, I don't hear it used much anymore.

empanadas
Post 1

You often tell someone "a penny for your thoughts" when you want to know what they're thinking about. It's a phrase that you say to someone when you want to know what they're thinking or are genuinely concerned about them as they might look a little disheartened.

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