Dear Straight Dope:
When did the phrase "a penny for your thoughts" originate? And based on when it originated, how much would it really cost for your thoughts nowadays?
SDStaff John Corrado replies:
Let me introduce you to a gentleman by the name of John Heywood. Born in London somewhere around 1497 (the London registry of births and deaths being unreliable once one attempts to research before, say, 1660), he was a man of masterful artistic talents. In 1515 he was a singer for the king, and eventually moved on to training choir boys to sing for the king as well and to write his own music to be performed for the king.
By middle age, Heywood began to dabble in non-musical arts–specifically, in the writing of “interludes,” small plays performed between other, larger plays, or even between acts of a very large play. When Heywood started writing, most interludes were of the morality play variety. Heywood eventually broke from this form and instead wrote small comedies of everyday life and manners. The Play of the Wether (1533) and The Playe Called the Foure P.P. (1547) are considered the best of the interlude form. While Heywood was not adverse to poking fun at the Church, he remained a staunch and outspoken Catholic–so much so that when the Protestant King Edward took the throne, Heywood fled to Belgium to live out the rest of his days.
You or I might be satisfied with simply being the foremost playwright of our day, changing the form of plays and paving the way for future luminaries such as Shakespeare and Marlowe. Not John Heywood, who found enough time between writing interludes and fighting for Catholicism in England to pen a two-hundred page book entitled A dialogue conteinying the nomber in effect of all the proverbes in the Englishe tongue in 1546. Later reprints called it The Proverbs of John Heywood, but that title is a misnomer in several ways. First, Heywood never claimed to be actually creating these proverbs; he was just cataloging the ones he had heard. But as with science, it doesn’t matter who invented it, it just matters who was first to publish it–thus, many common proverbs are now attributed to Heywood.
The title is also a misnomer because not all the entries in it could really be called proverbs. While “it’s an ill wind that blows no good” and “no man ought to look a given horse in the mouth” qualify, such statements as “butter would not melt in her mouth” and “went in one ear and out the other” really don’t.
It’s in this book that we find the earliest known citation of the line, “A penny for your thoughts.” While it’s unlikely that Heywood coined the phrase himself (excuse the pun), there’s no documentation to tell us how much further back it might go. For all we know, it originated twenty thousand years ago with the caveman equivalent of “bright shiny rock for your thoughts.”
Even if we take the 1546 publication date of Heywood’s tome as the date of origination, it’s hard to answer your second question–inflation is based on the difference in cost for like services over time, and quite frankly, there aren’t a lot of like services between now and 1546. It’s easier to set a price based on the 1906 re-printing of Heywood’s proverbs. A 1906 penny would be worth about 18 cents today.
We can do better than that, though. In 1521, Heywood received a 10 mark annuity as the king’s servant. There are 240 pennies to a mark, so that was a yearly salary of 2,400 pennies. According to Town And Country Resources in the San Francisco Bay Area, the average butler makes between $50,000 and $100,000. Let’s assume that being a “king’s servant” was the equivalent of being a top butler today (hey, it was the king, after all). That means equating 2400 pennies to $100,000, or approximately $42.67 per penny.
Conversely, were one to take a penny and stick it in a bank in 1546 at a measly 2% interest, in 2001 your account would hold $81.86. At a more robust 5% interest? Over $43 million.
So next time someone offers a penny for your thoughts, keep in mind that it ain’t necessarily chump change.
SDStaff John Corrado, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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