Q&A: Where does ‘dime a dozen’ come from?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the idioms are a dime a dozen…

Q: Hi AWC, where did the phrase “dime a dozen” come from? We don’t even use dimes.

A: Well, that’s your first clue. It came from America.

Q: Fair enough. But why does it mean “commonplace” these days? It’s a bit nonsensical really.

A: Well, as we keep saying (over and over), idioms don’t have to make sense today – they just had to have made sense when they were first created.

Q: So, what’s the story then?

A: As you’ve already said, something that is plentiful is today referred to as “a dime a dozen” or simply “dime a dozen”. For example, you might say that Disney live-action remakes of animated films are a “dime a dozen” these days.

Q: It certainly is a whole new worrrrrrld.

A: No, that’s our point, it’s the same wor— argh, never mind. Anyway, as the “dime” part might suggest, the original meaning was indeed price-related. It literally meant that you could buy 12 of something for just a dime.

Q: Pretty sure you’d need billions to buy 12 Disney movies.

A: That’s true. A US dime is worth 10 cents and around the mid-1800s, became the ‘sweet spot’ currency for a good deal on common grocery items. For example, a shop would advertise a dozen eggs for a dime. Or a dozen apples. And so on. “Dime a dozen” caught on at the shop window.

Q: What about a dozen Victorian-era chairs? Were they also a dime?

A: No, you don’t quite understand. It wasn’t 12 of just anything…

Q: Although I guess back then, they just called them chairs…

A: Look. It was things like fruits, vegetables, basic items. And this phrase was simply the 19th century’s version of “buy one, get one free”…

Q: Oh I ADORE “buy one, get one free”! Sometimes, I don’t even want the thing on sale, but I buy it anyway, just to get the free one.

A: Why?

Q: For resale value of course. The second one cost me nothing, so I can on-sell it for pure profit!

A: Oh dear…

Q: So anyway, when did “dime a dozen” come to get its broader meaning?

A: Good question! Because of course, these days, it’s not really about actual prices and shop windows. It’s a figurative meaning that refers more to the abundance of something.

Q: Like “tradies with white utes are dime a dozen”?

A: Precisely.

Q: Or “baby girls named Maeve, Rose or Ava are a dime a dozen”…

A: Again, a good one.

Q: Or “85-year-old ladies named Maeve, Rose or Ava are a dime a dozen”…

A: Well, yes maybe.

Q: Or “Charles Bronson and Donald Sutherland were a dime a dozen”…

A: Ah, no, we will stop you there. They were actually part of The Dirty Dozen.

Q: Oh, so they were.

A: Anyway, it wasn’t until 1930 that we first saw this broader, figurative meaning – and even then, it had evolved from still hinting at something being “almost worthless” when branded “a dime a dozen”. Over time this has been replaced by being “commonplace”.

Q: What about other “dime” sayings?

A: Well, they all seem to have originated in the first part of the 20th century. Things like “dime novels” were cheap paperbacks popular at the start of the 1900s. “Dime stores” (sometimes called “five and dimes”) arrived in the late 1920s selling food and household items, while being able to “turn on a dime” or “stop on a dime” was recorded from 1913 and 1927 respectively.

Q: A dime is worth 10 cents though. Why wouldn’t they have said “stop on a penny”?

A: Because despite their face value, dimes are actually the smallest of the US coins, 1mm smaller in diameter than a penny.

Q: Well, dozen get much simpler than that.

A: Bad puns like that are a dime a dozen…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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