Why Do We Give People Our Two Cents?
When someone enters a conversation of yours to give an opinion (warranted or not), they probably did so by throwing in and giving their “two cents.” But why exactly do we throw pennies at people and give them our two cents? It takes time to dig them back out from under the couch cushions after all.
A Penny for Your Thoughts
If you haven’t guessed, given the fact that we’re talking about pennies, the contemporary version of this phrase is largely localized to American English. But similar phrases exists outside of American borders–even in countries that don’t even have “cents”.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “a penny for your thoughts” before–which you may have thought of when considering giving out your two cents. It’s largely thought that giving people our two cents is derived from the phrase “a penny for your thoughts.”
Offering pennies for people’s thoughts dates back to at least the 1500s, published in Thomas More’s Four Last Things.
“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.’”
There are likely earlier uses of the phrase, but regardless it seems like “a penny for your thoughts” had entered the general English lexicon by the mid 1500s, with it’s inclusion in The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood published in 1562.
So asking for a penny for one’s thoughts has an easy step up. Two pennies! Meaning, it’s entirely possible the phrase “two cents” originated as a snarky response. You know, you asked for a penny’s worth of thoughts, but instead you got two.
Do the British Ask for Two Pence?
Well… Probably not anymore, but offering one’s opinion for two pennies definitely evolved outside of America. One can find references to the phrase “two penneth” used in the same context one would use “two cents” today. There are a handful of theories regarding its origin, so we’ll get into it. And these of course assume the phrase didn’t originate as just a snide retort.
One origin story is quite literal–it comes from the practice of offering a two penny tip to show your opinion of someone else’s services. More specifically, you didn’t think very highly of it. Thus, your opinion was literally worth two pennies. The expression, as we’ve discussed, is old enough that people of the time likely wanted to hang onto their pennies. So this theory probably just justifies an evolution of the phrase.
Another theory ties the phrase to card games–which people also attributed to the phrase “two cents.” Though that has also been ruled false.
Yet another story points us to postage–when letters would be sent via “twopenny post”. So your thoughts, if written and sent via snail mail, would actually have been worth two pennies.
The Bible Offers Us Two Cents
Getting yourself a physical copy of the Christian Bible most definitely costs more than two cents, lest you took it from a hotel somewhere.
Further Reading: Why Are There Bibles in Hotel Rooms?
Anyway, one of the earliest references to the American offering of two cents is Biblical. It’s seen in the Widow’s Offering (Lesson of the widow’s mite), wherein people are placing offerings into a treasury. A poor widow offers “two small coins worth a few cents,” and ultimately is used as a vector to teach about generosity. You know, because the rich people’s offerings were from their surplus capital, they wouldn’t be missing any of the money they offered. The widow, on the other hand, didn’t have wealth to spare, yet still made an offering. All that jazz.
Outside of the Widow’s Offering, the phrase also found itself in print in the Olean Evening Times in 1926.
We mentioned card games earlier with the phrase “two penneth,” so let’s get into it. It’s thought that the term “two cents” was reference to an entry bid to start playing. Thus, offering your two cents would be a cost of entry to a conversation.
While that’s how we use the phrase now, we couldn’t find any references to these origins. But hey, we weren’t alive back then. Well… None of us were.
Coins are fun, so here’s some coin trivia.