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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?

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This phrase also jumped out at me. I'd have called it a "5-dollar word" or an "SAT word", i.e. a word that sounds impressive but isn't terribly necessary. – Jeremy Oct 19 '11 at 16:03
Perhaps it increases along with inflation? My mom used to say 25-cent word. – onomatomaniak Oct 19 '11 at 16:14
Never heard of it. What does it mean, regardless of the number of cents involved? – Barrie England Oct 19 '11 at 16:20
The phrase can be found in books: google.com/… ; not too many occurrences, but the meaning is consistent – Unreason Oct 19 '11 at 16:34
It means that it is good for showing off one's vocabulary, @BarrieEngland. The word in question was pleonasm, by the way. – JeffSahol Oct 19 '11 at 16:42
up vote 7 down vote accepted

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 for other things that are cheap/low-quality, but there's no standard "high-price" version for expensive/good alternatives.

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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." – D Krueger Oct 20 '11 at 4:00
@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. – FumbleFingers Oct 20 '11 at 4:34
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. – JeffSahol Oct 20 '11 at 12:59

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!

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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". – Peter Shor Dec 31 '12 at 17:24

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