23

Here's part of a poem from Tolkien:

'For a couple o' pins,' says Troll, and grins,
'I'll eat thee too, and gnaw thy shins.
A bit o' fresh meat will go down sweet!
I'll try my teeth on thee now.

When you check up the meaning of "pin" in a dictionary, here is the usual definition (all the following definitions are from Google):

a thin piece of metal with a sharp........

The usage in the poem definitely has nothing to do with the previous definition. I suspect it has to be either this:

a person's legs.

Or this:

a half-firkin cask for beer. (British)

It could easily be neither of those as well. So folks, do you have anything to offer ? What does "a couple o' pins" mean in this context ?

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  • Must be the beer, what else? It can't be the legs. It would not work here. Because it can't be: for a couple of legs, I'll eat thee too. If he could have the beer, then he'd "eat thee too". And if he's gnawing the shins, that would include the parts of the body he would eat and probably the legs. For x in English means: In exchange for some thing, I would do some other thing.
    – Lambie
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:26
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    It could be pins as in bits of metal, as in I'd eat you for the price of a worthless bit of metal.
    – JeffUK
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:28
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    @HotLicks Could you provide a source ?
    – doubleOrt
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:30
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    He wants fresh meat and is being sarcastic. Like I said, you don't barter with someone you are about to eat. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_(Middle-earth) They are portrayed as large humanoids of great strength and poor intellect.
    – Lambie
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:43
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    Could this be a variation on the BrE expression "for two pins" (which means "at the slightest provocation")?
    – Laurel
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:43

3 Answers 3

46

I think this may be a variation on the BrE expression "for two pins", which means:

At the slightest provocation; for the smallest reason.
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms (via TFD)

I assume that "pins" here refers to the type used in sewing or another practically worthless type of pin.

The earliest attestation of this idiom that I found so far is from 1890:

For two pins I'd put a match in every gunyah on the place.
The Squatter's Dream: A Story of Australian Life

Here's another early example from The Times (London, 1794):

I'll blow you up for a sodomite, for two pins.


There are other, older idioms where pins are worthless (note that the expression most likely refers to pins made of wood or bone, not metal). "Not worth a pin", "wouldn't care a pin", etc.:

He seide al þat he had ywonne
Jn þe werlde vnder sonne,
He nolde ȝiue þere-of a pynne,
Bot he miȝth þise wynne.

He said all that he had won
In the world under the sun,
He wouldn't give thereof a pin,
If he might win this.
Kyng Alisaunder

See 9. b for more quotes (and a definition) from Middle English.

It was even used by Shakespeare:

A round hose, madam, now's not worth a pin.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona


It's worth mentioning that I found the exact same expression "for a couple o' pins" in:

  • The Leisure Hour (1904):
    • [F]or a couple o' pins I'd shteam-rowl yez under the two feet o' me.

  • The chimney corner (1879):
    • See now, for a couple o' pins I'd take both yerself an' the little sweep ye call 'John' to the lock-ups!

15
  • 7
    Funny how it sounds a bit like tuppence , which isn't very much.
    – tchrist
    Apr 2, 2018 at 18:44
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    @tchrist so are we saying that "pins" in this context is "pence". Can we find references for that? Apr 2, 2018 at 21:48
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    @AmI "Pence" is the plural of "penny". (It could have been a worse spelling, you know :P)
    – Laurel
    Apr 2, 2018 at 23:21
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    I didn't buy 'pfennig' as a root, but 'panningaz' is, alas, inscrutable.
    – AmI
    Apr 2, 2018 at 23:53
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    I even remember British people, who were alive in say the 1940s, saying this. "Not worth a pin". It's a case of .. it's that simple.
    – Fattie
    Apr 3, 2018 at 11:28
1

When dressmaking pins were made by hand they were something of real but very small value. As the process of making them became more mechanised the value dropped and they began to be sold in numbers pushed through sheets of paper in the form of "a paper of pins" which were sold for a farthing (a quarter of a pre-decimal penny). They were still sold in papers in the 1950s.

I understand that papers of pins were often given in place of a farthing's change, probably because the wholesale price was less than a farthing but also because there was, in the early days of the industrial revolution, a shortage of low-denomintion coinage.

I suspect that the practice of giving pins as change is quite old, even pre-dating mechanisation, and was part of the pre-industrial barter system. Thus saying things like "For two pins I'd..." or "I wouldn't give two pins ..." would have been a natural way to indicate a low value or tolerence of something.

Interestingly there is a folk song which starts with a suitor saying "I will give you a paper of pins because that's the way my love begins". He then proceeds to offer the girl more valuable gifts until she accepts. How old this is I'm not too sure but it seems to be at least 18C from some of the internal references.

0

Being a cooper (barrel maker), I have always considered ‘pins’ to refer to a small barrel. Thus ‘for two pins’ (of rum or beer) I would have enough courage to do something that I shouldn’t.

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