If someone has ever asked you for a ‘penny for your thoughts’, you may have wondered where this peculiar phrase came from. The expression, which is used to ask someone what they are thinking about, has an interesting origin story that dates back several hundred years.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The phrase ‘penny for your thoughts’ first appeared in print in a play called Lingua by Thomas Dekker in 1607, but it likely was in use earlier in spoken form.

It referred to someone literally paying a penny to hear another person’s thoughts or secrets.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the early history of the ‘penny for your thoughts’ phrase, look at some of the earliest known uses and examples, discuss penny’s value when the phrase first emerged, and examine how its meaning has evolved into the popular expression we know today.

Earliest Known Uses of the Phrase

The phrase “penny for your thoughts” has a long and fascinating history, with its origins dating back several centuries. Here are some of the earliest known uses of this common phrase:

Appearance in Lingua Play in 1607

The phrase “penny for your thoughts” can be traced back to the 17th century. One of the earliest recorded instances of the phrase appears in the play Lingua, written by Thomas Tomkis and performed in 1607. In the play, the character Tacitus asks another character, “A penny for your thoughts, sir?”

This suggests that the phrase was already in common usage by that time.

References in 17th and 18th Century Texts

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the phrase “penny for your thoughts” made appearances in various texts. For example, in Samuel Palmer’s 1662 book, “The Presbyterian Ballance,” the phrase is used in a figurative sense to express the idea of wanting to know someone’s innermost thoughts.

Similarly, in Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, “Moll Flanders,” the phrase is used to imply that someone’s thoughts or opinions are valuable and worth paying for.

Meaning as Paying to Hear Someone’s Thoughts

The phrase “penny for your thoughts” has evolved over time to generally mean paying to hear someone’s thoughts or opinions. It is often used as a lighthearted way to inquire about what someone is thinking.

The idea behind the phrase is that one’s thoughts are valuable and worthy of compensation, even if it’s just a small amount like a penny.

Today, “penny for your thoughts” is a familiar expression that continues to be used in everyday conversations. It serves as a playful way to engage with others and express curiosity about their inner world.

So, the next time you find yourself deep in thought, someone might just ask, “Penny for your thoughts?”

Penny’s Worth in the 1600s

In the 1600s, the value of a penny was significantly different from what it is today. Back then, pennies were made of silver, and their value was much higher compared to modern times. In fact, a penny in the 17th century could go a long way.

Pennies Much More Valuable in Earlier Times

During the 1600s, a penny was worth a substantial amount of money. In today’s currency, it would be equivalent to a few dollars. This is in stark contrast to the penny’s value today, where it is often seen as an insignificant amount.

The monetary worth of a penny has certainly changed over the centuries.

Penny Could Buy Small Items or Services

With the higher value of pennies in the 1600s, they could be used to purchase various goods and services. People could buy food items, such as bread or fruit, for just a few pennies. In addition, a penny could also cover the cost of simple services, like shoe shining or getting a haircut.

It is fascinating to consider what a penny could buy in earlier times compared to what it can buy today.

Phrase Meant Willingness to Pay for Thoughts

The phrase “penny for your thoughts” originated from the idea that someone was willing to pay for another person’s thoughts or opinions. It was a way of expressing interest in someone’s ideas and valuing their input.

The value associated with a penny in the 1600s further emphasized the significance of this gesture. The phrase continues to be used today, although the literal value of a penny has diminished.

Evolution Into a Common Expression

The phrase “penny for your thoughts” has a long and fascinating history, evolving from its literal meaning to become a commonly used expression in modern vernacular. Over the years, it has undergone a shift in meaning, been used to politely inquire about someone’s thoughts, and has seamlessly integrated into our everyday conversations.

Shift From Literal to Figurative Meaning

Originally, the phrase “penny for your thoughts” was a literal request for someone to share their thoughts or opinions in exchange for a small monetary reward. In medieval times, a penny was a significant sum of money.

It was not uncommon for people to offer a penny to encourage others to open up and express themselves.

As time went on, however, the phrase took on a figurative meaning. Instead of a literal exchange of thoughts for money, it began to represent a polite request for someone to share their innermost musings or feelings.

The value of the penny became less important, and the focus shifted to the act of sharing one’s thoughts.

Used to Politely Inquire About Thoughts

One of the reasons the phrase “penny for your thoughts” has endured is its polite and non-intrusive nature. It allows someone to express curiosity about another person’s thoughts without being too direct or pushy. It’s a subtle way of showing interest and engaging in conversation.

For example, imagine two friends sitting in a park, enjoying a beautiful day. One friend might turn to the other and say, “Hey, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on in your mind. Care to share? Penny for your thoughts?”

This gentle, lighthearted query creates a comfortable space for open communication and connection.

Integration Into Modern Vernacular

Today, the phrase “penny for your thoughts” has become a common expression in the English language. It is often used as a rhetorical question to encourage someone to share their thoughts or opinions on a particular matter.

It can be heard in both formal and informal settings, from casual conversations among friends to business meetings and even in literature and film.

The phrase’s integration into modern vernacular is a testament to its longevity and continued relevance. It serves as a reminder of our innate curiosity about others and our desire to connect on a deeper level.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering about someone’s thoughts, don’t hesitate to ask: “Penny for your thoughts?” You might be surprised by the insights and stories you’ll uncover.

Related Expressions and Variations

The phrase “Penny for Your Thoughts” has become so popular that it has given rise to several related expressions and variations that are used in different contexts.

‘Penny for Your Troubles’

A common variation of the original phrase is “Penny for Your Troubles.” This expression is often used when someone wants to express empathy or offer assistance to someone who is going through a difficult time.

It implies that the person is willing to listen to their problems and provide support, even if it’s just a small gesture.

For example, if a friend is feeling down, you might say, “Hey, I can see you’re not yourself today. Is there anything I can do? A penny for your troubles, maybe?” This shows your willingness to lend an ear and offer help.

Regional and Translated Versions

Just like any popular phrase, “Penny for Your Thoughts” has regional variations and translations in different languages. In the English-speaking world, you might come across phrases like “Dime for Your Thoughts” in the United States or “Cent for Your Thoughts” in Canada.

Outside the English language, other variations exist. In French, for example, the phrase “Un sou pour tes pensées” translates to “A penny for your thoughts.” Similarly, in Spanish, “Un céntimo por tus pensamientos” conveys the same sentiment.

Use in Pop Culture and Media

The phrase “Penny for Your Thoughts” has made its way into various forms of media, including literature, film, and television. It is often used to add a touch of charm or nostalgia to a scene or dialogue.

In the classic novel “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, the character Mr. Darcy famously asks Elizabeth Bennet, “May I have the pleasure of a penny for your thoughts?” This interaction showcases the politeness and courtship rituals of the time.

In modern pop culture, the phrase is frequently used as a title or theme for songs, albums, and even TV show episodes. Artists and writers are drawn to the phrase’s simplicity and relatability, making it a versatile and enduring expression.

Interested in learning more about the fascinating origins and history of this common phrase? Visit www.phrases.org.uk for a deeper dive into the subject.

The Enduring Appeal of ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’

The phrase “Penny for your thoughts” is a timeless expression that has captured the imagination of people for centuries. It is a simple yet intriguing phrase that continues to be used in everyday conversations, both in formal and informal settings.

Let’s delve into the reasons behind its enduring appeal.

Simplicity and Wit

One of the reasons why the phrase “Penny for your thoughts” has endured throughout the years is its simplicity and wit. The phrase consists of just a few words, yet it manages to convey a sense of intrigue and curiosity.

The use of the word “penny” adds a touch of playfulness, making it a lighthearted way to ask someone what they are thinking.

Sense of Curiosity and Intimacy

The phrase “Penny for your thoughts” also has a certain sense of curiosity and intimacy attached to it. When someone asks you for your thoughts, it shows that they value your opinion and are genuinely interested in what you have to say.

It creates a connection between individuals, fostering a sense of trust and openness.

An Informality That Encourages Conversation

Moreover, the informality of the phrase encourages conversation and allows people to express their thoughts more freely. It creates a relaxed atmosphere where individuals feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions.

This informal approach can often lead to deeper and more meaningful conversations.

The phrase “Penny for your thoughts” has become a part of our cultural lexicon, and its appeal shows no signs of fading. It continues to be used in various contexts, from casual conversations to literature and entertainment.

So, the next time someone asks for your thoughts, don’t hesitate to share them. After all, a penny for your thoughts may just lead to an enriching exchange of ideas!


The phrase ‘penny for your thoughts’ has certainly come a long way since its humble beginnings over 400 years ago. While a penny doesn’t hold much value today, at one time it was enough to purchase a person’s innermost thoughts and reflections.

Over centuries of use, this phrase evolved from a literal financial transaction into a colloquial expression of interest in what someone is thinking about.

So next time someone asks you for a ‘penny for your thoughts,’ you can impress them by sharing some of the captivating history behind this common saying. Just don’t expect them to hand over an actual penny in return!

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