I found the answer to this question interesting in that he referred to a "75 cent word". I would have called it a 50-cent word, not because I undervalued his answer but because that is how I have heard the phrase. I thought at first that am old enough that inflation caused the difference, but I found a 1976 reference to 75-cent word from 1976, the earliest reference to the phrase I found in a quick ngrams search.

What is the "right" value to use in the phrase "?-cent word" (or, what was the original)? Has it changed over time? Do non-American English speakers have alternative expressions in local currency?

  • 1
    This phrase also jumped out at me. I'd have called it a "5-dollar word" or an "SAT word", i.e. a word that sounds impressive but isn't terribly necessary. – Jeremy Oct 19 '11 at 16:03
  • 7
    Perhaps it increases along with inflation? My mom used to say 25-cent word. – user13141 Oct 19 '11 at 16:14
  • Never heard of it. What does it mean, regardless of the number of cents involved? – Barrie England Oct 19 '11 at 16:20
  • 1
    I've heard "five-dollar word" to mean "a long, obscure word". I don't recall ever hearing "75-cent word". I agree that without context, I'm not sure if that means a long word or a short word or something else entirely. (Personally, I think "quarter" is a 25-cent word. :-) – Jay Oct 19 '11 at 17:09
  • 1
    Lol! We always said " A 50 Cent Word ". was one of those words which was not in our vocabulary, mainly because we lacked the knowledge about the word. (eg; trite, antidisestablishmentarism). I'm a down to earth fella and never attended college, so I'm sure my vocabulary is lacking in what we called " fancy words" ! – user199843 Oct 7 '16 at 13:13

Checking NGram for cent word, it seems to me the most common usage is Don't use a 50-cent word when a 5-cent one will do.

The earliest example I can find for a 50-cent word is Printers' ink, Volume 153, Issue 2 (1930), where it's not contrasted with any higher/lower value word. But I think it's being used to identify an impressive-sounding new buzzword, so I guess the speaker already knew the 50-5 saying.

Having invented the English language, we Brits think our words are beyond price anyway, so we don't have any monetary idioms for them. We do use tuppenny-ha'penny and ten-a-penny1 for things that are cheap/low-quality, but there's no standard "high-price" version for expensive/good alternatives.

1 cf US two-bit and dime a dozen

  • 3
    From American Machinist, Vol. 13, No. 38 (1890): "There has been far too much highfalutin by men who, to cover their own ignorance, have used long half-dollar words to express what no fellow could understand." – D Krueger Oct 20 '11 at 4:00
  • @D Krueger: It goes back a fair way then. I can't help but suspect that a high-falutin' half-dollar/50-cent word implies ordinary ones were already proverbially cheaper. Perhaps initially they were a dime-a-dozen, I don't know. – FumbleFingers Oct 20 '11 at 4:34
  • Thanks @FumbleFingers for the research, and also for the insight on Brit mentality. Interesting that the phrase seems to be American-only...a commentary on American mentality, I suppose. – JeffSahol Oct 20 '11 at 12:59

The origin of this expression was in the days of the telegraph. When you wanted to send a message over telegraph, you were charged per word. The larger the word, the higher the price. So, "fifty-cent word" (or whatever the monetary amount) referred to a word with many letters, probably the maximum price at the time.

As stated elsewhere, the implication is that a shorter, "cheaper" word would have worked just as well or better in the given context!

  • 6
    Wonderful false etymology. But actually, all words were the same price. This is why the ABC universal commercial electric telegraphic codebook (fourth edition, 1899): used codewords such as "municipal" for "must not be" and "murenger" for "you must". – Peter Shor Dec 31 '12 at 17:24

protected by tchrist Oct 7 '16 at 13:21

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.