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I am reading The Maltese Falcon. Though the book was written in the 1920s, the edition I'm reading was printed in 1992. The back cover blurb uses the phrase "at the drop of a dime" to describe the sudden changes of loyalties in the story.

Some sources note this phrase's similarity (in meaning and construction) to "at the drop of a hat". Though I can find good explanations for Why hat? (most centering around the hat being used like a flag to signal the beginning of a fight), I cannot find anything similar for Why dime?

It may be a malaphor, a neologism that means

An idiom blend: an error in which two similar figures of speech are merged, producing a nonsensical result.

As one blogger says:

[It seems] like a combination of “do at the drop of a hat” and “he dropped the dime”. [1] Very different meanings, but the word “drop” apparently led the speaker to think “dime” instead of “hat” (alliteration perhaps?) and thus another malaphor was born.

Given the popularity differences displayed in this nGram it would make sense for at the drop of a dime to be a corruption of at the drop of a hat.

Are there formal sources on the origin of, or use of dime in, the phrase at the drop of a dime?

[1] The phrase he dropped the dime may mean to make a telephone call, particularly to snitch on

  • I think this is a pointless question. Obviously it's wordplay based on at the drop of a hat coupled with dime as used in many American idioms. But the idea of an actual origin seems misplaced with something that might be repeatedly re-coined by people who never heard it before. As I'm sure is the case for many of the thousands of written instances of at the drop of a pin punning on at the drop of a hat combined with you could hear a pin drop. – FumbleFingers Jan 31 '14 at 13:44
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    @FumbleFingers That's a better point with pin, which doesn't even have the alliteration going for it. In the absence of other explanation, there is nGram evidence to suggest that these are corruptions borrowed from a more popular, unrelated phrase. – user39720 Jan 31 '14 at 15:25
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I actually think "at the drop of a dime" resulted from the previously established "at the drop of a hat" combining with the phrase "stop on a dime." This Ngram shows no instances of "drop of a dime" used prior to the introduction of "stop on a dime." According to Etymonline, "phrase stop on a dime attested by 1954 (a dime being the physically smallest unit of U.S. currency)." Additionally, the Ngram demonstrates a clear proportional relationship between the two terms. enter image description here

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American Culture Explained says this about

Drop of a dime:

If you do something at the drop of a dime you do it very fast, pretty much instantaneously, without too much thought, planning, or hesitation. Another way of saying the same thing is “at the drop of a hat”.

The origin of that phrase seem to be the Wild West where dropping a hat was often a sign of an imminent fight. But then again it might also be of Irish origin where they apparently were also ready to fight without much ado.

Here are some examples:
“The situation in Libya is very volatile right now, things can change at the drop of a dime.”

That makes it synonymous with "drop of a hat".
See also: americanidioms

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    I think it's a bit misleading to say the hat version is "another way of saying the same thing". Basically, that's the original. There are lots of less common allusions, including despite the image of Americans as enthusiastic litigants willing to sue at the drop of a bedpan, which has almost certainly occurred to at least half-a-dozen writers independently (you won't find that one in any dictionary or guide to established idiomatic usages). – FumbleFingers Jan 31 '14 at 17:35
  • @FumbleFingers That remark is not necessarily in that 'direction', though it may appear so at first reading. It can as well mean that at the drop of a hat is the other (original) way of saying the same thing. Another way because the page is discussing the dime idiom, and the hat case is a cross reference. See also is not degrading the reference. Hope you agree. – Kris Feb 1 '14 at 6:12
  • @FumbleFingers I cited this for its But then again it might also be of Irish origin, which I found an interesting additional info. – Kris Feb 1 '14 at 6:14
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    I don't see how this explains the origin of the term. Even if one concedes "drop of a hat" and "drop of a dime" are synonymous, there's no explanation as to how "hat" --> "dime" – njboot Jun 5 '14 at 16:22
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    I think a dime drops faster than most hats. Discuss. – RyeɃreḁd Jun 5 '14 at 16:29
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"At the drop of a dime" sure sounds like a mixture of "at the drop of a hat" with "to drop a dime on" (to snitch on). The phrase comes from the old cost of a telephone call (ten cents) by which a criminal could rat out his former friends.