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In American English, for a long time we've had the idiom "to stop on a dime." It means to stop abruptly and completely. It came to be used as a description for something agile or nimble. Etymonline says

Phrase stop on a dime attested by 1954 (a dime being the physically smallest unit of U.S. currency).

But for the past several decades I've heard the expression get off the dime being used to mean "get started" or "get going" and is used in the same circumstances as the idiom "get a move on." It seems obvious to me that this must be a transposition of "stop on a dime" (a metaphorical one, at least).

I'm curious if anyone can show a link between "stop on a dime" and "get off the dime," or if there is some other explanation that might turn my bit of intuition into folk etymology.

  • 2
    I've never heard of "get off the dime". – Kristina Lopez Oct 20 '15 at 13:52
  • @Kristina: Check this post on ELU. But really, it's everywhere. – Robusto Oct 20 '15 at 13:54
  • I guess I'm living under a rock, Robusto. :-) – Kristina Lopez Oct 20 '15 at 13:59
  • Nothing to back this up, but I’ve heard “get[ting] off the dime” used to kind of mean “getting off the dole” = “off the [taxpayers’] dime” as opposed to “being/getting something on the [taxpayers’] dime.” – Papa Poule Oct 20 '15 at 15:09
  • The timing (c.1920) seems about right, so I wonder if it can be traced back to Charlie Chaplin. I remember a scene (maybe in The Immigrant?) where a cash-strapped Tramp sees someone drop a coin. He very elaborately manages to put his foot on it, and is then effectively rooted to the spot as he tries to find an opportunity to pick it up. I can imagine "get off the dime" to be aimed at someone who seems to be so immobile. – JHCL Oct 20 '15 at 15:31
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According to The Word Detective get off the dime dates back to the 20's and predates Etymonline 1954 suggestion on stop on a dime. Actually, as shown below, the latter has an older origin, probably from the same period as the former.

  • “Get off the dime” has been around since at least the 1920s, and today it’s generally used to mean, as defined by the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, “to take action after a period of indecision or procrastination; to act” (“Congress [should] get off the dime and adopt the … budget proposal before it,” President Ronald Reagan, 1982).

  • Since a dime is a small unit of money and fairly easily to come by, this small coin has played a much larger role in US slang than, for instance, the hundred-dollar bill.

  • To “drop a dime on someone,” for instance, means to inform on them, usually by tipping off the police, and originated back in the 1960s when a call from a public telephone cost ten cents. “Dime” has also found a home in the slang of drug users, where a “dime” or “dime bag” has long meant ten dollars worth of a drug. The small size of a dime has also been used as a metaphor for “a small spot,” as in “stop on a dime” or “turn on a dime” when speaking of motor vehicles (or politicians).

  • “Get off the dime” dates back to the days of dance halls and “taxi dancers,” women employed by the halls to dance with strangers, usually for ten cents per dance (a grim occupation immortalized in the 1930 Rodgers and Hart song “Ten Cents a Dance”).

    • A contemporary account, published in 1925, explains the phrase: “Sometimes a … [dancing] couple would … scarcely move from one spot. Then the floor manager would cry ‘Git off dat dime!'” Similarly, “dancing on the dime” meant to dance very closely with very little movement, behavior that might well attract the attention of the Vice Squad and get the hall closed. Thus “get off the dime” referred both to the the customer as the “dime” he had paid and to the small spot (“dime”) on the floor where the couple seemed frozen.

Actually according to The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition By HarperCollins get off the dime is:

  • (1925+); an alteration of the expression stop on a dime, used to praise the brakes of a car.

Ngram shows usage of the two expressions are from the late 20's/early 30's.

The following extract suggests that they may have come into usage about the same period and in the same context:

  • Thanks to Jonathan Lighter's "Historical Dictionary of American Slang," we have the activity that coined the phrase. Carl Van Vechter, one of the earliest modern dance critics and author of the 1926 novel "Nigger Heaven" - a title nobody would use today - described the scene in a taxi-dance hall: "Sometimes a … couple would scarcely move from one spot. Then the floor manager would cry, Git off dat dime!"

  • To dance on a dime was to grind bodies tightly together in clothed but sexual contact, without moving from that spot; taxi dancers working for a dime (immortalized in the 1930 Lorenz Hart lyric "Ten Cents a Dance") were exhorted by their bosses to keep the customers moving. Thus, to get off the dime came to mean "to get moving."

(ytlcommunity.com)

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Three early senses of 'get off the dime'

To supplement Josh's answer, I offer these early Google Books matches for "get off the dime," all from the middle 1920s.

From California Engineer (December 1925) [combined snippets]:

GET OFF THE DIME!

Mental indolence is a spectre that haunts every college campus. It is a disease, a disease as insidious as the Black Death of the Middle Ages. It is all the more dangerous because it is extremely difficult to combat, as was the Black Death three hundred years ago. From this disease no one is immune. It is not only the unintelligent and naturally slothful people whom it affects, but the mentally alert and industrious fall prey to its contagion.

From The Stanford Quad (1926) [combined snippets]:

Now comes too soon the final Reckoning-time;

Five Exes in one Quarter is a Crime

I'll have to seminar to beat the Band

Or roll the Stuff; I must get off the Dime.

From The Seventh Regiment Gazette, volume 40 (1926):

In fact, I have a very clear recollection of a baseball game at West Point [New York, home of the U.S. Military Academy], two years ago, when I was, through no fault of my own, an integral part of the battery of "Stricker and Restor for the Seventh Regiment of New York." The clearest recollection of all, however, is of an exciting part of that very same game, with two scurrying Regimental players dashing madly around the bases, with me in hot pursuit, having just made a lucky drive, and with various rooters in the grandstand, of whom even at this very late date, I am undecided as to whether they were with, against, or 'way ahead of me, shouting various verbal forms of either encouragement or discouragement ; I don't know which, such as, "Take that house off your back," "Throw the lead out of your feet," "Come on, get off the dime," and other jocular remarks intended to belittle my ability, ...

From William Morse, "Stanford Expressions," in American Speech, volume 2 (1927):

get off the dime — start (1)

The marker (1) means, according to Morse, "Used at Stanford [University]," as opposed to the marker (2) ("Used on the Pacific Coast") or the marker (3) ("Used on the Pacific Coast and in the Middle West").

Frederick Bolton, Adolescent Education (1931) revisits the expression as follows [combined snippets]:

On every college campus slang is different. The Stanford student says he got a valentine in every course for the simple reason that he didn't "hit a book."

The only solution for the Californian is to "get off the dime" and quit "fussing the co-eds." This slang is so strange that a student traveling from one college to another must almost learn a new language.

These early instances are striking in their distribution: The instance in California Engineer from late 1925 refers to indolence on "every college campus" but obviously is a California publication. This is followed by two seemingly independent reports of the term from sources at Stanford University (in California) from 1926 and 1927, and then by a mention of the expression at Stanford University that very likely relies on the 1927 glossary item.

The geographical oddball is the item from New York in 1926, in which the author recalls the expression being used by baseball fans in New York two years earlier. Arguably, too, although the sense of the expression might be translated as "get off you duff" in both the California college instances and the New York baseball instance, the underlying sense of the phrase is somewhat different: the California instances mean"stop goofing off, and get to work," while the New York baseball instance could be translated as "run as fast as you can, slowpoke."

J.E. Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993) gives separate entries to the dancehall meaning of "get off the dime" (cited in Josh's answer) and the collegiate meaning:

get off the dime, 1. to move from a stationary position.—used esp. of dancers in a dancehall. [Cited examples, starting with the 1925 Van Vechten quotation that Josh's answer includes, omitted] 2. to take action after a period of indecision or procrastination; to act. [Cited examples, starting with the 1926 American Speech glossary mentioned earlier in this answer, omitted.]

Lighter puts the dancehall meaning first because the Van Vechten novel (set in New York City) came out a year before Morris's "Stanford Expressions" article did. But as noted above, attested use of the procrastination sense of "get off the dime" in California goes back to December 1925.

So we have three distinct senses of the same expression emerging almost simultaneously on opposite coasts of the United States, two of them first attested in 1925 and the other attested in 1926.


'Play on a dime'

But there is a further complication. Lighter includes an entry for a different expression involving dimes that was in use by 1929:

play on a dime Baseball. ...[First cited use:] 1929 N.Y. Times (June 2) IX 2: A fielder who fails to cover much ground is said to be "playing on a dime."

A Google Books search turns up an instance of this usage from The Literary Digest, volume 114 (1932):

Another early revolutionist, Charlie Comiskey, was first-baseman with the old St. Louis Browns, and those were the days when an infielder, hugging his bag, "played on a dime." Charlie went to the Browns' manager, and said:

"See here, boss! I wish you'd let me play off that bag a bit. I could cover more ground, and I could hustle back in plenty of time to take the throws after the ball was hit. Want to try it out some day?"

These entries involving "play on a dime" as baseball lingo for guarding a base closely on defense instead of playing off the base mesh nicely with the New York baseball recollection in which fans yell at a runner to "get off the dime."


'Stand on a dime'

The only remaining point I want to raise here is that the expression "stand on a dime" shows up in a sporting context as early as 1916, although the sport is boxing. From Fred Hunter, "The Hypodermic Needle, in the Omaha [Nebraska] Bee (March 12, 1916):

After losing a ten-round bout to the champ, Ad Wolgast demands the attention of the public by declaring "I can beat Freddie Welsh in a twenty-round fight." Probably, Ad, probably, if Eddie Rickenbacker trains you and you make Freddie stand on a dime.

And from the [Paris, Kentucky] Bourbon News (December 29, 1922) this space-filler joke:

If some fellows would stand on a dime they would remind us of the Woolworth stores—nothing over ten cents.


A bold but iffy hypothesis

On the available evidence (which is pretty skimpy) I offer this hypothesis: (1) "Stand on a dime" (remain stationary or motionless) comes into use by 1916 as a way to describe standing still. (2) In baseball, by the early 1920s (though I have no corroborating evidence for this date, as the earliest documented use of the expression is from 1929), the tactic of guarding a base by standing on it until the batter hits the ball gives rise to the expression "play on a dime." (3) By 1924, when a baseball player needs to run fast, fans sometimes shout "get off the dime." (4) Through the national mobility of baseball and baseball slang, "get off the dime" by 1925 reaches California, where, on college campuses, it acquires the meaning "do nothing, procrastinate, behave indolently." (5) Either from the baseball sense of "get off the dime" or by an independent route from the old "stand on a dime," dancehall slang by 1925 adopts "get off the dime" as a way of saying "move from a stationary position [on the dancefloor]."

There are several holes in this hypothesis, starting with the big ones at steps 2 and 4; but whether it turns out to be valid or not, I would love to see additional data on early instances of the three expressions discussed above—"stand on a dime," "play on a dime," and "get off the dime"—as well as on the relative age of the sporting, collegiate, and dancehall usages of "get off the dime."

  • +1 great answer. What can you say about this answer from a new user? english.stackexchange.com/a/368896 – NVZ Jan 19 '17 at 10:40
  • @NVZ: The only reference to literal dime-standing I found was in "Stood on a Dime,"—a truly offensive joke/anecdote from the Dallas [Texas] Express (January 11, 1919), involving a fight between "a Colored boy" and "a Jew boy" in which the latter refuses to fight back because, as he tells his father, "I'm standing on a dime." As an example of pandering, invidious-stereotype-reinforcing humor, it's impressive; but I think it has zero etymological weight for the phrase "get off the dime." – Sven Yargs Jan 19 '17 at 18:04
  • ...The idea that a person during the Depression (roughly 1929–1940) might tell someone who was holding up a line “Hey! Get off the dime!’” is not at all preposterous; but chronologically it couldn’t be the origin of the phrase, which dates at least to 1925 in multiple senses. Once idiomatic meanings such as “stop procrastinating” and “get a move on” are in place, it is not surprising that the idiom might be applied in new situations (such as bread queues). – Sven Yargs Jan 19 '17 at 18:05
  • The first time I encountered the expression "get off the dime" was in a pamphlet published by the Communist Party USA some time in the 1930s or 1940s (I believe). The pamphlet, titled "America Needs to Get Off the Dime," was an argument for increasing the legal minimum wage for workers. – Sven Yargs Dec 15 '17 at 22:24
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I believe the meaning has remained the same but reasons changed over the decades. I was told that during the depression if someone saw a dime on the ground they would put their foot on it until they could pick it up. This was frequently in line for the soup kitchen so they would hold up the line and it became a mantra to anyone daydreaming in line. "Hey! Get off the dime!!"

  • 3
    Interesting. Can you link to some online articles that support your assertions? – NVZ Jan 18 '17 at 5:10

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