I've always thought "to coin a phrase" means to invent a phrase or be the first person to use it.

Today I came across this usage by a reporter for the Lancashire Telegraph

The Burnley board are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, to coin a Kilby phrase, ‘bet the ranch’.

In this statement, very clearly the reporter is using Kilby's common phrase and not making up her own

Some searching led me to the Cambridge dictionary

to coin a phrase

something you say before using an expression that has been very popular or used too much

In this definition this becomes equivalent to cliched

The same sentiment is explained at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/coin-a-phrase.html

So my question is whether this is universally the case or is it a British English thing?

Is it now incorrect to use "coin a phrase" with a meaning of "a new phrase" ?

  • Have you read Brendon Flood's autobiography? It's a cracking read. – Andy F Sep 23 '11 at 10:17
  • @AndyF: Nope, I'm not a Clarets fan or anything really. Just an observer. Are you a supporter? – JoseK Sep 23 '11 at 10:19
  • I am. I confess I thought you might be because I couldn't imagine anyone else reading Burnley articles in the LT. I recommend Flood's book because it's actually only tangentially related to football - it's more about how he grew his property business, moved to Burnley and had to contend with the zealotry of the fans. It's called "Big Club, Small Town, and Me". – Andy F Sep 23 '11 at 10:31
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    @AndyF: I.. erm.. clicked on .. erm .. some erm.. Blackburn articles first. Are we still friends? Just kidding, I'm a neutral reader of lots of football stuff. – JoseK Sep 23 '11 at 10:36
  • Haha! I'm really just an armchair supporter now. I moved to live 300 miles away, so it's not like I have a season ticket anymore (although I did in 2009-10). – Andy F Sep 23 '11 at 10:57

I'm sure the reporter knew perfectly well the implications of using to coin a phrase, and it wasn't an "ironic" usage in the sense that people say this when trotting out a cliche. It's a tichy (tongue-in-cheek) example of typical British understatement.

Barry Kilby (manager of Burnley Football Club) has said more than once that he wouldn't bet the ranch on the outcome of an upcoming game. The reporter is slightly niggled by this, since the standard (particularly in the UK) expression is bet the farm. She's even more niggled because we don't even have "ranches" in the UK - but we do have a preponderance of foreign (including American) managers of our football clubs.

Personally I think the reporter is taking two or three good-natured pops at what she sees as legitimate targets, while showing her own skill at writing by doing this in so few words.

Edit: Having not actually followed OP's link to the newspaper report itself until now, I've just somewhat sheepishly changed the gender of my pronoun references to reporter Suzanne Geldard.

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    +1 Bravo; solid analysis of the subtle British humour. As far as I can tell, anyway. – Karl Knechtel Sep 23 '11 at 20:35
  • Smart - so as per my original question, is this the widely accepted usage of "coin a phrase" in the UK? – JoseK Sep 24 '11 at 9:57
  • @JoseK: This particular one is unusual. The reporter may never have heard "bet the ranch" except from Kilby, because (even in the US) it's very much a secondary form. It's often said after a neologism that you may have heard recently yourself, but think others may not. So it can mean "a new coinage I came across recently", or "a coinage I've just come up with". Of course, it can be facetiously used of a well-established idiom/cliche too, especially if that cliche does actually fit the current context. – FumbleFingers Sep 24 '11 at 11:50
  • ...note that Kilby himself could have said "I wouldn't bet the stadium on tomorrow's game, to coin a phrase". That would be quite normal usage. Semi-facetious, if you like, in that he would be slightly adapting an existing idiom. That usage I think is particularly common. – FumbleFingers Sep 24 '11 at 11:58

To coin a phrase did originally mean to invent a new phrase, but its use now is almost always ironic.

It often seems to be an author's way of excusing him/herself for using a cliche.

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    I don't agree that "its use now is almost always ironic" -- in fact I've seen the non-ironic use rather often (where the author was genuinely coining a new phrase, or at least thought he/she was), and the ironic use very rarely. – ShreevatsaR Sep 23 '11 at 11:23

In eighteenth century thieves slang, a coiner was a counterfeiter. Knowing this, I had the vague impression that "coining a phrase" was taking someone else's phrase and using it yourself. You would mint your own.

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    Your theory makes sense and I like your explanation. If you could back up your answer with a reference or two others will find your answer to be useful too. (Putting the word, coiner, in italics or bold, would make it stand out more IMHO.) – Mari-Lou A Sep 26 '13 at 6:54

The OED confirms the current meaning, but with no suggestion that it once meant anything else:

an expression commonly used ironically to introduce a cliché or a banal sentiment.

The earliest supporting citation is dated 1940. The entry for ‘coinage’, however, includes its figurative use to mean

The (deliberate) formation of a new word, etc.

  • So it is incorrect to use it to refer to inventing one's own phrase ? What I mean is any listener would understand the speaker is using a cliché? – JoseK Sep 23 '11 at 7:35
  • I try to avoid the word ‘incorrect’ when discussing language. I suppose a native speaker could precede a genuine quotation with the phrase without being misunderstood, as in, ‘To coin a phrase, “Nothing venture, nothing gain.”’ But I think it would be more usual to hear: ‘As the saying goes, “Nothing venture, nothing gain.”’ – Barrie England Sep 23 '11 at 9:01
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    The OED does give that meaning, but it immediately follows this: " c. spec. To frame or invent (a new word or phrase); usually implying deliberate purpose; and occasionally used depreciatively, as if the process were analogous to that of the counterfeiter." – Colin Fine Sep 23 '11 at 11:17

As other respondents have said, it's nearly always used jokingly to pretend that the speaker has invented the phrase. However, I've never seen this usage - where the speaker gives credit to someone else (in this case Kilby) but also claims that she's coined the phrase. Seems a bit strange.


I have always understood coining a phrase to mean inventing a new usage, with "coining" being a synonym for "minting," or newly creating. The other usage makes no sense. Why would anyone, when using a common phrase, add a wordy pretense that they were inventing what everyone knows they did not invent? Isn't that compounding the banality? Why would anyone point out the fact that they are using a commonplace? It is a blatant absurdity, the opposite of British subtlety. That this bizarre meaning even exists is very surprising.

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