origin of phrase

I have e-mailed The Master directly with this question, but I thought perhaps the fertile minds of all y’all dopers might know: what is the origin of the phrase “keep turning up like a bad penny”?


Here’s what I found with a quick Google search

Can’t attest to it’s accuracy, though.


That’s a tough one.

The term “bad penny” to mean a false coin appears in English in 1393. And it was used in a sense about people, not coins. So the term “bad penny” was evidently in use as a metaphor qute early.

The phrase “to turn up” meaning “to appear” doesn’t seem to show up until about the early 1700’s.

I can’t find the exact phrase. The OED is the logical place to find it, but it’s not there.

So, next I tried searching my very limited databases in the US. At least limited from what I can search at home.

The term “bad penny” starts to show up here about the 1850’s.

It is referred to in an 1857 quote as a Scotch proverb(no proof) saying “A bad penny always returns.”

Also from 1850 and 1851, as “comes back like a bad penny.”

So! it wasn’t always “turning up like a bad penny.”

Well, SamClem, 1850 is very, very late in the history of this word.

I’m going to make a very WAG about this. “Bad penny” might refer to a swindler’s penny, one with two heads, or one that is deliberately unbalanced, so that when you flip it (as to settle a dispute), the coin will never “turn down”; a bad penny will always turn up. So the expression, with regard to people showing up, is a pun (more precisely, a zeugma)! “Turning up like a bad penny!” Ha!


Nametag. I offered that the term “bad penny” went back to the 14th century.

It could easily appear in the US before my 1850 cite. I mentioned that I had limited access to search for the term from home.

If you have a cite as to the term “swindler’s penny”, I’d love to see it.

On rereading, I assume you were just setting up your joke(pun)?