Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Are You a Nuisance with Your Two Cents?



Audio Transcript:

Welcome everyone to another episode of Get the Word! I am your host Mike Butler. In a recent episode I used the phrase My Two Cents in a joke about the four penny coffins mentioned in the hangover episode. It got me thinkin’, how far back can I trace the use of this phrase, ‘my two cents’? So that’s what we’re going to dive into today.

Let’s start with what it means. My Two Cents is a phrase that some people say when they want to give their opinion on something, often when it’s not asked for. Here, I’ll use it in a sentence. I’m always putting in my two cents, even though no one ever asks for my opinion.

Let’s start our quest for ‘my two cents’ today with a Google Ngram Search. Google Ngram traces the use of words and phrases in printed texts dating all the way back to the year 1500. Ngram reveals the use of ‘my two cents’ specifically emerging only in the 19th century. However, upon further research I kept finding that the uses of my two cents in the 19th century books I skimmed through were using ‘my two cents’ to literally refer to the cents they had to pay for something. I’ll provide some excerpts now:

The earliest uses of my two cents appear on a Google Ngram search in about 1824, but, as I said before, these earlier examples that I’ve found pertain only to the transaction of money for goods or services.

These are great quotes so I’m going to share three of them with all of you. The first comes from The Outlook: A Family Paper which came out on July 7th, 1894, which, by the way, cost 10 cents to buy at the time. In it, along with ads for rootbeer tonic to cure all your ills and mangles, which back in the day were devices to wring out water from wet laundry and to flatten or press laundry, perhaps so named because they look like you can easily mangle your hand in them, anyway, aside from those ads there was also a story called A Chalk-Line, written by Margaret Sutton Briscoe. Quote:

““That is not my two cents”
“Then whose is it?” Ellsworth asked, looking back”
“I have nothing more to do with it. I paid it for the shoe-string that is now in my shoe””

They go on to talk about coins for quite some time, and perhaps I’m being dense, but I do think they are talking about coins and use of coins, not giving opinions.

Horatio Alger, the American writer of young adult novels wrote in his 1869 novel Mark the Match Boy: “I just pay my two cents, and go aboard, and snuggle up in a corner and go to sleep. So I ride to Brooklyn and back all night”.

I’m also going to share a bit of this rather interesting correspondence between mid 18th century US Secretary of State Daniel Webster, and his older brother Ezekiel. Daniel would end up helping out his brother financially for a bit, including to help him go to college to further educate himself, so again, this correspondence was most assuredly about the literal two cents given to Ezekiel: “— show notes —”

Boy oh boy, Daniel sure could have used something like Venmo back in the day. One time he borrowed $85 to send to his strapped for cash brother Ezekiel and it was lost by the stagecoach driver!

Stick around, because after the break I’ll finally get into tracing the origin of the actual phrase ‘my two cents’ instead of just early examples of people talking about having two cents. Be right back.

— BREAK —

Before the break we saw some examples of My Two Cents from most likely before anybody was using this phrase as a way to give one’s opinion. However, we did start to see examples emerge in that same century, the 1800s, of using two cents to represent a small, meager, paltry amount. As in the phrase: ‘not worth two cents’ Example, “That piece of junk is not worth two cents” . This use of two cents may have been influenced by the British use of twopence or tuppence to describe something in a similar fashion, the use of which has been traced back to around 1600.

Also, perhaps now is a good time to mention what some believe to be the earliest known mention of any type of currency in the specific amount of TWO of said currency, to represent something that just didn’t have much value. It comes from The Bible. The story of the Widow’s Offering or Widow’s Mite, from the Gospel of Mark. Here’s one translation of this story:

41 Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. 42 Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.[a]

43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. 44 For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.”

So this poor woman had so much faith in her God that she gave all she had. In other words, she was totally committed! Another way to say it, she went all in! That’s a little clue for what I’m going to talk about in a little bit, but for now let’s get back to more modern day examples specifically of ‘two cents’ and ‘my two cents’.

Here’s perhaps one of the earliest uses of ‘not worth two cents’ from "The Return of Uncle Sam," in the Sacramento [California] Daily Union (February 14, 1859) in reference to a danger presented because of a top heavy freight ship called Uncle Sam: “orders were given that all hands should go to work throwing overboard everything on the upper decks, and, as there were 500 men on board, a busy scene was presented, though not all would work. Some were listless and indifferent; others were praying, some swearing, and some said it was of no use to do anything; the vessel must founder; their lives were not worth two cents apiece. The sea was running mountain high, and wave after wave broke over her, to the great peril of all on deck.”

So there you go. We can trace that back to 1859. We’re definitely not just talking about an exchange of money for goods or services in this newspaper article. We have other examples from 1868…1871 too, which is from a version of Jack and the Bean Stalk, an exchange between Jack and the giant Horridheads’ wife, Scaredtodeath:

Scaredtodeath. Do you know where you are?

Jack. I have not the faintest idea.

Scaredtodeath. You are where your life is not worth two cents.

Jack. Ma'am!

One of the earliest examples I could find in print of someone using ‘two cents’ referring to giving someone’s opinion comes from 1911, an excerpt from the Washington Times on March 19th of that year, the woman being mentioned in this little excerpt is most likely the real life Barbara Fritchie, Unionist and alleged agitator during the American Civil War:



    And they awl put up thare guns, and was jest about to shoot her with reel bullits. when Stone Wall Jack's son put in his two cents worth.

    Cut that rite out, he sed. The furst man that toutches her harey old gray hed, he sed, will wish he hadent I'll teetch you to waist bullits, he sed. Forwerd, martch!


Ok and I have to share one more From the New York Tribune dated September 17th, 1915 in a letter to the editor regarding The Vatican and peace in a time of world war:


    If every blatant ass with his or her two cents' worth of knowledge may shout for peace, why must the great Roman Catholic Church keep silent?  ”

So between the 19th and 20th centuries we can see this reference to two cents transform from something of little value to someone’s opinion of little value. It is interesting then, that in the coming early decades of the 20th century we would start to hear people use this to refer to their own opinions. Our NGram search showed a significant increase of the specific phrasing ‘MY two cents’ in print starting in the late 1930s. So let’s look into what was going on at that time.

To start, I’ll just make note that my research seems to line up with a few sources that also state that ‘my two cents’ started to become popular in the 1930s, including Merriam Webster.

Here’s the earliest source I could find of the specific phrasing ‘my two cents’. It predates what Merriam Webster says is the first known use of the defined meaning of “an opinion offered on a topic under discussion”. The source I found is from 1920. I must tell my listerners that I found this after scouring printed sources online and that I do not have these original printed sources in front of me. There’s always the possibility of an incorrect digital scan or of some sort of fabrication, but I will say this, this is not the first time I’ve found what seem to be credible print sources that predate the origin or first known use dates of words and phrases that I see in credible dictionaries like Merriam Webster and Oxford. So let’s take a look at this source:

War Expenditures
Hearings Before the Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, US House of Representatives, Sixty-sixth Congress from July 11 to October 31st 1919, printed in 1920. In it, an exchange between Mr. McKenzie, the chairman presiding over these hearings, and a Mrs. Kaplan who was being probed about her potential mistreatment at Walter Reed Hospital during WWI, after her husband had already given a statement: — show notes —  

McKenzie’s response to Kaplan, in my opinion, tells us that they both are in agreement that she can’t just give her opinion, or her two cents on the matter, rather, McKenzie is requesting that she give us the facts of what happened at Walter Reed Hospital.

As we all know, phrases often catch on and are used by the general public before we ever see it being used in literature or other printed sources. As this is a transcript of a hearing, it gives credence to the theory that the use of ‘my two cents’ to gives one’s own opinion was being used by the general public as early as 1919.

Side bar just to mention that when giving one’s two cents, it’s historically meant to be self deprecating, as you are implying that you are giving an opinion that’s not worth much.

Now let’s drag Snopes into the discussion this week. Once again I will explain, Snopes is an online fact checking resource that’s been around since the early days of the internet. They are debunking a claim of origin to ‘my two cents’ that I haven’t mentioned yet; that ‘my two cents’ gained its linguistic origin thanks to the game of poker. I mean, this would tie into the origin related to the Gospel of Mark, in the sense that the poor woman put in all she had and, well, kind of took a gamble hoping that it would pay off… don’t ya think? I’m sure any religious scholar out there would tell me I’m missing the point of this passage.

In reference to the potential poker parallel, Snopes has this to say: “the ante in a poker game was two cents, therefore one would “ante in” ( (or) enter a conversation) by throwing in one’s metaphorical two cents. While the gambling explanation is attractive, nothing supports it.”

The article tells us that their research shows no evidence of a tie to poker and the phrase ‘my two cents’. Here’s what we can can confirm based on Snopes’ research, that, yes, the story of the poor widow from the Gospel of Mark is definitely worth mentioning in tracing down the origin of this phrase, and also that two of some sort of currency seems to be a common price for many small purchases of negligible worth, such as a twopenny ale, twopenny post or, as I mentioned in the hangover episode, the use of a twopenny rope for the night!

So there we have it. It’s very doubtful that we could trace this phrase back to one specific person or source, as it probably formed its modern day meaning over time through use throughout the general public and through the evolution of meaning that we discussed today. It’s hard to say if the bible story we discussed had a lasting impact on shaping this phrase over time, but there certainly is a chance, and we can also say that it has gained popularity within the past few centuries, first referring to someone else’s opinions, as this originally most certainly meant giving an unwanted or unimportant opinion, even though it isn’t always used in this way today.

Before we end our discussion on ‘my two cents’ I want to quote once again the Snopes article about ‘my two cents’ because it is a great summation of why we even bother in our languages to have cliches, idioms, expressions as opposed to just searching for the most succinct way to say something:

“But why do we say “Here’s my two cents on the matter” instead of “Here’s what I think”? Why do we need to couch such an addition to a conversation in linguistic smoke?

We do so in an effort to lessen the impact of a social trespass. By identifying one’s take on a matter as being worth no more than a pittance, some of the social crime of butting in unasked is undone — the analysis or advice is offered in a self-deprecatory “Well, this likely isn’t worth all that much, but here it is anyway” fashion. The one who couldn’t keep his thoughts to himself, while still inserting himself presumptuously into something that wasn’t his business, is at least being humble about it. “

— FACT CABINET —

Once again we’re going to take a peak into the Fact Cabinet, a collection of assorted items always relating to the topic at hand.

Ah, since we’re talking about pennies, let me dig out my coin collection. Here we are. Here’s one of my prized possessions, a gray colored US penny from February 1943. As many of you may know, a typical US penny has a copper color because, well, they’re typically made from copper and zinc, but during WWII these metals were rationed for the war effort, so the US Mint decided to come out with a zinc coated steel penny during the war in 1943. Doing so saved enough copper to make 1.25 million shells of ammunition. There were some problems with the steel penny however. It rusted, vending machines had a hard time figuring out what it was, and it was also mistaken for a dime. They scrapped the idea and had a different metal combination for the penny by 1944.

Here’s another prized penny in my collection. It’s one of the last million pennies produced by the Royal Canadian mint in 2012, the last million made available as special collector’s items. That’s right, since 2012, there have been no new pennies up in Canada. I have some great quotes from that year about the phasing out of the penny.

Saying goodbye to the humble penny, Finance Minister back in 2012 Jim Flaherty said that “it’s a currency without currency” and was surprised that the penny lasted this long. He went on to say “Pennies take up too much space on our dressers at home. They take up far too much time for small businesses trying to grow and create jobs…

It costs taxpayers a penny-and-a-half every time we make one. We will, therefore, stop making them."

That seems sensible!

I also love this quote from a CBC article of around the same time quoting Winnipeg MP Pat Martin: “People don't even bend over to pick them up off the ground anymore. If you throw one in a panhandler's cup, you get the stink-eye from them,"

And in case you were wondering about Canada’s rounding up or down, the official stance seems to be:

Round down: cash transactions that end in one, two, six or seven cents.

Round up: Cash transactions that end in three, four, eight or nine cents.

If that’s confusing to you then just think of this example: “…  if a coffee costs $1.27, it will be rounded down to $1.25. If it's $1.28, the final cost will be bumped up to $1.30. “

I wonder if cashiers ever round up when they should be rounding down… to our Canadian listener’s write in to the podcast and share your thoughts about nearly a decade now of being penny free. Is it something we should do here in the US? Why haven’t we yet? Perhaps eventually ‘my two cents’ will take on a different meaning if we see the penny completely disappear from currency.


— END FACT CABINET —

That’s all for the fact cabinet. I want to remind everyone that they can leave a message for me for the podcast, by going to www.englishsessionswithmike.com, where you will also find audio transcripts of every episode.

Write in to the podcast: getthewordpodcast@gmail.com . Give us your word suggestions, and I’ll take them into consideration for the podcast. Please rate and review this podcast ANYWHERE that you can. It’s super helpful. Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is getthewordpodcast@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you.


Show notes:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/32912/where-did-the-expression-my-two-cents-come-from

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/two-cents-and-sensibility/

https://www.google.com/books/edition/New_Outlook/k-YhAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22my+two+cents%22&pg=PA16&printsec=frontcover

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Substance_and_Show/6apGAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=my%20two%20cents

https://www.slanglang.net/slang/my-two-cents/

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Mark/970qAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_two_cents

Bible: https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-origin-of-the-phrase-my-two-cents?share=1

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=my+two+cents&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&case_insensitive=true&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cmy%20two%20cents%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bmy%20two%20cents%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BMy%20two%20cents%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BMy%20Two%20Cents%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BMY%20TWO%20CENTS%3B%2Cc0

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/393950.html (earliest use ask ngram)

https://www.google.com/books/edition/War_Expenditures/F9wrPsxd_bEC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=%22my%20two%20cents%22

https://nottheperfectpastor.com/2015/11/10/my-two-cents-worth/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/two%20cents

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+12%3A41-44&version=NLT

https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1915-09-17/ed-1/seq-6/#words=%22her+two+cents+worth%22

Fact Cabinet:

http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1913870_1913868_1913856,00.html

https://www.ctvnews.ca/gov-t-scraps-penny-a-currency-without-currency-1.788689

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/canada-s-last-penny-minted-1.1134670

https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/programs/about-canada-revenue-agency-cra/phasing-penny.html

American Patriots - Track 48

Dangerous Ground 60

https://simpsonswiki.com/wiki/File:My_two_cents.png

https://soundbible.com/2081-Coin-Drop.html

Cubase - Heroic Adventure

Rafael Krux - Emotional Blockbuster

https://soundbible.com/1512-Civil-War-Drummer-.html

Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center: https://monroevillemusiccenter.bandcamp.com/track/the-perfect-planet

And Kevin Macleod https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Jazz_Sampler/Faster_Does_It_1271

Bebop for Joey

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches: https://brunofsanches.myportfolio.com/




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