I met the phrase penny dropped today and learned that it is mainly used in UK.

The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary via TheFreeDictionary.com defines it as

if you say the penny drops, you mean that you have finally understood something.

Are there any similar ways that are popular in the US to express the same meaning?

  • 6
    I think one of the more common US ones which means something similar (though not exactly the same) is the other shoe dropped. Mar 8, 2016 at 13:59
  • 9
    "lightbulb moment"?
    – Marv Mills
    Mar 8, 2016 at 14:02
  • 2
    "Suddenly, it hit me" might be good as well Mar 8, 2016 at 14:02
  • 2
    Are you referring to this?: if you say the penny drops, you mean that you have finally understood something - idioms.thefreedictionary.com/the+penny+drops
    – user66974
    Mar 8, 2016 at 14:03
  • 10
    @JohnClifford "penny dropped" is about understanding something, so nothing to do with the other shoe dropping.
    – Jon Hanna
    Mar 8, 2016 at 15:44

11 Answers 11


A moment of sudden realization, enlightenment, or inspiration


That exact moment I finally understood something.

[Urban Dictionary] (for lack of better resources)

  • Should "it hit me" be "it hits me" or it's intentionally used like that? Mar 8, 2016 at 14:24
  • I think I have the answer now. This ngram tells me the truth. books.google.com/ngrams/… Mar 8, 2016 at 14:30
  • 4
    @OgrishMan - "It hit me" would be the equivalent of sudden realization. (I was breaking my head over a high severity bug but then it hit me! StackOverflow!!) "It hits me" means that it affects me (Lower wages hits me where it hurts the most, my quality of life).
    – BiscuitBoy
    Mar 8, 2016 at 14:38
  • 5
    Standing in the park I wondered, why does a frisbee appear bigger the closer it gets? And then it hit me.
    – Tom Bowen
    Mar 9, 2016 at 10:27
  • 1
    @OgrishMan "It hit me" is the past tense of the verb. "It hits me" is the present tense. Both are grammatically correct, but your sentence "The penny dropped" is in the past tense. The present tense would not usually be used with this meaning of the phrase, but it could be used with the literal meaning of "dropping a small coin".
    – alephzero
    Mar 9, 2016 at 15:13

You could say that it clicked.

informal to become suddenly clear: it finally clicked when her name was mentioned.

[AHD via TFD]


To dawn (up) on someone:

  • Fig. [for a fact] to become apparent to someone; [for something] to be suddenly realized by someone. (Upon is formal and less commonly used than on.)

    • Then it dawned upon me that I was actually going to have the job. On the way home, it dawned on me that I had never returned your call, so when I got home I called immediately.

(Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms)

  • Is this one popular in the US? If I say it, will most US citizens understand me? Mar 8, 2016 at 14:19
  • 2
    Yes, it is a common expression, it is also used in the UK though. Compare here : books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user66974
    Mar 8, 2016 at 14:22
  • 1
    I'm not sure this is an exact match.  The "dropped" phrase refers to gaining an understanding; "it dawned on me" refers to realizing a new fact; perhaps deducing it from information previously known (and understood) information. Mar 10, 2016 at 0:04
  • I'm not sure to what extent it means sudden realisation - M-W has "to begin to be perceived or understood".
    – Stuart F
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:20

You might call that a eureka moment:

The eureka effect (also known as the aha! moment or eureka moment) refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.

  • After "light-bulb moment", this was the next thing that came to my mind.
    – Barmar
    Mar 15, 2016 at 1:49

“Finally/suddenly seeing the light” is another way to describe a “penny-dropping moment.”
(example usage of “I suddenly saw the light!” next to “The penny dropped!” from ‘Young Children Learning Through Schemas: Deepening the dialogue about learning in the home and in the nursery’ by Katey Mairs, The Pen Green Team, via ‘Google Books’)

see the light
Fig. to understand something clearly at last.
“After a lot of studying and asking many questions, I finally saw the light.”
“I know that geometry is difficult. Keep working at it. You'll see the light pretty soon.”
(from ‘McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs’ via ‘The Free Dictionary by Farlex’)

see the light
1. to understand something clearly, especially after you have been confused about it for a long time
“Sarah used to have very racist views, but I think she's finally seen the light.”
(from ‘Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed.’, also via ‘The Free Dictionary by Farlex, lower on the same page linked above)


"Fell into place"?

He was trying to figure it out, when suddenly it all fell into place. It was the Butler, who did it!

  • Also, the pieces fell into place. I guess it's a jigsaw puzzle reference?
    – Engineer
    Mar 10, 2016 at 21:58

Have a moment of clarity

Or an Epiphany, also known as sudden realization/suddenly realizing (JOKE)

  • 1
    These are valid, although they are very standard English. Saying what something is instead of using an idiom.
    – AJFaraday
    Mar 8, 2016 at 15:04
  • @AJFaraday OP includes the more general tag 'expressions' as well as 'idioms'. Oct 1, 2020 at 10:19

Definition of the idiom, get the picture:

to understand a situation.


"The team won two, then lost three, then won two, then lost two, then won three - you get the picture?"

It is referring to clarity in tuning old televisions.

(Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms)

  • To get the picture is to gain an understanding of something; it does not convey the moment of understanding.
    – choster
    Mar 9, 2016 at 1:12
  • I don't agree based on the provenance I indicate, but I accept my Minnesotan heritage has put an odd spin on many of the idioms I use.
    – Lighthart
    Mar 9, 2016 at 1:28
  • @choster - Good point. I think, though, that suddenly get the picture could work nicely, as in: Suddenly, I got the picture.
    – J.R.
    Mar 9, 2016 at 18:14

A phrase similar to "seeing the light" is the fog cleared.


Grok - 'to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with'

  • 3
    Grok describes a state of affairs, a condition, not a moment. For example, "Do you grok perl?" "No, it's all line noise to me". You don't say "Aha! I grok it!". There is no element of "finally, at last" in the work "grok" (in contrast to for example 'a light bulb moment'). Mar 8, 2016 at 21:30
  • I judged the intuitive understanding of something to be inline with what the OP was looking for.
    – GenericJam
    Mar 8, 2016 at 22:12
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    OP's link gives an example of usage; in the example, the understanding occurred suddenly. There's no indication that the understanding was "intuitive".
    – David K
    Mar 8, 2016 at 23:09
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    This is pretty far outside modern American idiom, being derived from Heinlein's half-century old book.
    – Lighthart
    Mar 9, 2016 at 0:13
  • 1
    @Lighthart I would say that it is generally and immediately understood in tech/geek culture, but not in modern America at large.
    – mattdm
    Mar 9, 2016 at 0:50

"The light came on" Would be the closest thing I would think of.

  • Please explain why this is the closest thing you can think of. Mar 17, 2016 at 12:41

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