Penny for your thoughts

A penny for your thoughts is an idiom that goes back hundreds of years. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beating around the bush, ballpark figure, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, Achilles heel, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the definition of the phrase a penny for your thoughts, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

Someone says a penny for your thoughts when they want to know what you are thinking, usually when they have been waiting to hear what is on your mind and after a period of silence. The phrase a penny for your thoughts is a gentle coaxing to hear your thoughts, a request rather than a demand. Lovers sometimes say a penny for your thoughts in order to move along a discussion when making plans for the future or simply when they are whispering endearments to each other. The phrase a penny for your thoughts goes back at least to 1522, when it was published in the work Four Last Things by Sir Thomas More: “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.’” The phrase was surely known before this time, but was not popularized until it appeared in The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood, published in 1562. At the time this expression was invented, a penny was worth much more than it is now.


“There came a lull in the conversation, and Brandon said, ‘Penny for your thoughts?'” (The Tahlequah Daily Press)

When they ask for your support this year, remember they are really saying “A penny for your thoughts!” (The Washington Post)

According to the Aggie Traditions website, the tradition of “putting a penny on Sully” stems from a story that Ross, who helped students with their homework, when asked by those he assisted how they could pay him back,  would respond “a penny for your thoughts.” (The Eagle)


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