What is the source and meaning of "turning up like a bad penny?"

  • What do you mean "old timers"? This expression is still in use by people who aren't old.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 8:38

2 Answers 2


An old proverb in which a 'bad penny' is a methapor for someone or something unwelcome.

  • Pennies today are viewed as nearly worthless by many people (although not so many as a year ago), but when the term “bad penny” first appeared in the 18th century, pennies were serious money. This made them ripe targets for counterfeiters, and to reach into your pocket or purse and discover that you had ended up with such a counterfeit coin, a “bad” penny, was a depressing and annoying experience.

    • The only recourse available if you were stuck with a “bad penny” was to try to spend it as quickly as possible and hope that an inattentive shopkeeper would take it. But because everyone was trying to unload their “bad pennies” this way, according to the common wisdom of the time, your odds of encountering one, or even the very same one you had gotten rid of a week earlier, were quite high. Thus “bad penny” became an idiom meaning “an unwanted thing that keeps showing up.”

A bad penny always turns up

  • is a very old proverb that dates back to at least the mid-18th century (Ngram) and is probably much older. The general sense of the phrase is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the predictable, and often unwanted, return of a disreputable or prodigal person after some absence, or (more generally) to the continual recurrence of someone or something.”

  • A “bad penny” is a person whose presence is unwelcome on any occasion, but whom fate perversely employs to torment you by making said person appear (“turn up”) repeatedly, often at the worst possible times. The ne’er-do-well nephew who appears only at family weddings, funerals and holiday dinners, never invited but always mysteriously materializing at your elbow and asking for a loan, is the classic “bad penny.”

  • Former romantic flames can also be counted as “bad pennies” if fortune (or fanaticism) dictates too many accidental reunions (“Don’t stalk him! If you turn up like a bad penny every time he leaves the house, he’ll think you’re a bunny boiler,” Cosmo Girl, 2004). (“Bunny boiler,” of course, is a reference to the behavior of the character played by Glenn Close in the 1987 film “Fatal Attraction.”)

(from www.word-detective.com)

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    Underlying the proverbially frequent recurrence of the bad penny is Gresham's Law. Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 11:54

You know, I had never heard this phrase until recently. I think it was said on some TV show in reference to a recurring villain.
EDIT: Jeremy Slate was called one by Ruth Roman in Gunsmoke, S17 ep.4

It is based on the use of counterfeit pennies back when pennies actually had some value. Someone might notice a fake penny among their change and rather than tossing it and accepting the loss, he would try to quickly spend it. The problem is that the penny can make it thru the system and end up with the same person again.


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