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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 ?

  • 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 '18 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 '18 at 17:28
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    @HotLicks Could you provide a source ? – doubleOrt Apr 2 '18 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 '18 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 '18 at 17:43
43

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!

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    Funny how it sounds a bit like tuppence , which isn't very much. – tchrist Apr 2 '18 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? – Quasi_Stomach Apr 2 '18 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 '18 at 23:21
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    I didn't buy 'pfennig' as a root, but 'panningaz' is, alas, inscrutable. – AmI Apr 2 '18 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 '18 at 11:28

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