English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

There was the following sentence in the pretty old article of Daily Finance titled “How to avoid getting nickel and dimed with fee:

“These days, it seems as if everyone's trying to squeeze every penny out of us. From banks to colleges, American consumers are being nickeled and dimed like never before. Here are some of the biggest offenders, and your best defense against them.”

OALD at hand defines hyphenated ‘nickel-and-dime’ as an adjective (Ame. informal) ‘involving only a small amount of money; not important.’

Oxford Online Dictionary defines hyphenated ‘nickel-and-dime’ as an adjective meaning ‘of little importance,’ and as a verb meaning ‘harass someone by charging for many trivial items or services.’

Cambridge Online Dictionary defines ‘nickel and dime’ as an adjective meaning ‘something that is not important, usually because it does not involve much money.”

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines hyphenated ‘nickel-and-dime’ as an adjective meaning ‘involving or offering only a small amount of money.’

Though it seems the usage is more often associated with money, can ‘nickel-and-dime’ be used as a verb for the object that has nothing to do with money, in such a way as ‘Indulgence in alcohol nickel-and-dimed his health’ or ‘Rapidly ageing population with declining birth rate nickel and dimes the strength of the country’?

Which is more common to use the word, with hyphen, or without hyphen?

share|improve this question
As Barrie points out below it can be used outside of purely monetary metaphor. But your example questions aren't quite formed correctly they needs some sort of a direction. So, "Indulgence in alcohol nickel-and-dimed his health away." That is a nice one because he probably also was nickel-and-diming his money away on alcohol at the same time. Your second one though doesn't really work for me because there is not even a metaphorical sense of "spending" or accumulating being done to the strength of the country. – Jim Jul 13 '12 at 8:19
Another issue concerns the past tense of the verb (i.e., nickel-and-dimed vs. nickeled-and-dimed). The Ngram shows both in use but the latter more common, which matches what I recollect hearing. As for metaphor #2, there's too big a gap between a nation's strength and the avg age of its population, so I agree w/ @Jim, but it could be modified to work: A rapidly aging population with declining birth rates can nickel-and-dime the size of a nation's labor pool, (meaning, erode over time). – J.R. Jul 13 '12 at 9:03
The definitions you quote strike me as incomplete. Sometimes people use "nickel and time" to refer to something trivial, like "I'm getting bogged down in the nickel-and-dime stuff and don't have time to do what's important." But more often, the meaning is like in your example: Not that it is "unimportant" or "trivial", but that it is an accumulation of small things that add up to a big thing. If someone charges me a $1 fee every day, in a year that totals $365, a decidedly non-trivial sum. (To poor people like me, anyway.) – Jay Jul 13 '12 at 16:50
@Jay. If nickel and dime means to build up a big thing by accumulating a small thing that is "unimportant" or "trivial," not necessarily related to money, it reminds me a Japanese word, ‘sanshoku -蚕食’ meaning to consume or encroach a big chunk of thing (human body, house, building, system, and organization) just like a swarm of silk-worms eat up tons of mulberry leaves by bit and bit (though mulberry leaves aren’t unimportant to silk worms). I don’t know if this analogy applies to ‘nickel and dime’ used as a verb. – Yoichi Oishi Jul 13 '12 at 20:57

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for nickel-and-dime (with hyphens) as a verb, with the following three definitions:

  1. transitive. To treat in a penny-pinching or parsimonious manner; to harass or wear down with trivialities, especially by excessive attention to small items of expenditure.

  2. intransitive. To beg. Now rare.

  3. transitive. To work (one's way) by thrift, or by the accumulation of small amounts of money; (also in extended use, especially in Americn Football) to inch (one's way), to gain ground slowly but steadily. Also with it.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.