I'm editing a novel set in 1930s England, written by an American author, and have been editing out any Americanisms I come across. I just read a line of dialogue containing the idiom "as neat as a pin" (meaning clean and tidy). I've never heard of this before; is it an American phrase, or have any other Brits out there heard of it? All I can find of it online is that it originated in the early 19th C. with the development of mass production.

If it is in fact an American phrase, what would be an appropriate British English equivalent in keeping with the book's setting? "As nice as ninepence" perhaps?

  • 1
    I'm almost 60 years old, an American, and first heard this phrase maybe 50 years ago. I have no idea how it came about. – John Peters Dec 2 '15 at 3:39
  • I agree with John, though I'm several years older yet. I only recall encountering the idiom in the grade school "reader", 50+ years ago. – Hot Licks Dec 2 '15 at 5:47

The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest reference to the phrase is 1787:

e. as neat as a (new) pin.
1787 Columbian Mag. I. 636 [He was] neat as a new pin. 1801 J. Wolcot Wks. (1812) V. 35 How neat was Ellen in her dress! As neat as a new pin! 1849 Thackeray Pendennis I. xiii. 118 Major Pendennis, whom Miss Costigan declared to be a proper gentleman entirely,..and as neat as a pin. 1933 L. A. G. Strong Sea Wall 245 Sheehan's pride was to have his cottage as neat as a new pin. 1961 Dog World Apr. 30 In the morning we leave the room looking as neat as a pin!

Although the first cited reference is a Philadelphia journal, the second cited reference is from the British author John Wolcot in 1801. I think we can assume from this, and many other British sources from the 1840's onwards, that the term has long usage in both American English and British English. Consequently it would be appropriate to 'put it in the mouth' of a speaker of British English in the 1930's.

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