By JeffSahol

2011-10-19 16:00:15 8 Comments

I found the answer to this question interesting in that he referred to a "75 cent word". I would have called it a 50-cent word, not because I undervalued his answer but because that is how I have heard the phrase. I thought at first that am old enough that inflation caused the difference, but I found a 1976 reference to 75-cent word from 1976, the earliest reference to the phrase I found in a quick ngrams search.

What is the "right" value to use in the phrase "?-cent word" (or, what was the original)? Has it changed over time? Do non-American English speakers have alternative expressions in local currency?


@FumbleFingers 2011-10-19 17:16:39

Checking NGram for cent word, it seems to me the most common usage is Don't use a 50-cent word when a 5-cent one will do.

The earliest example I can find for a 50-cent word is Printers' ink, Volume 153, Issue 2 (1930), where it's not contrasted with any higher/lower value word. But I think it's being used to identify an impressive-sounding new buzzword, so I guess the speaker already knew the 50-5 saying.

Having invented the English language, we Brits think our words are beyond price anyway, so we don't have any monetary idioms for them. We do use tuppenny-ha'penny and ten-a-penny1 for things that are cheap/low-quality, but there's no standard "high-price" version for expensive/good alternatives.

1 cf US two-bit and dime a dozen

@D Krueger 2011-10-20 04:00:41

From American Machinist, Vol. 13, No. 38 (1890): "There has been far too much highfalutin by men who, to cover their own ignorance, have used long half-dollar words to express what no fellow could understand."

@FumbleFingers 2011-10-20 04:34:22

@D Krueger: It goes back a fair way then. I can't help but suspect that a high-falutin' half-dollar/50-cent word implies ordinary ones were already proverbially cheaper. Perhaps initially they were a dime-a-dozen, I don't know.

@JeffSahol 2011-10-20 12:59:37

Thanks @FumbleFingers for the research, and also for the insight on Brit mentality. Interesting that the phrase seems to be American-only...a commentary on American mentality, I suppose.

@anachronisto 2012-12-31 17:16:44

The origin of this expression was in the days of the telegraph. When you wanted to send a message over telegraph, you were charged per word. The larger the word, the higher the price. So, "fifty-cent word" (or whatever the monetary amount) referred to a word with many letters, probably the maximum price at the time.

As stated elsewhere, the implication is that a shorter, "cheaper" word would have worked just as well or better in the given context!

@Peter Shor 2012-12-31 17:24:48

Wonderful false etymology. But actually, all words were the same price. This is why the ABC universal commercial electric telegraphic codebook (fourth edition, 1899): used codewords such as "municipal" for "must not be" and "murenger" for "you must".

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