The origin of the idiom “to coin a phrase” is often disputed among historians. Some attribute it to the field of coin minting, and others attribute it to the printing press.
The idiom “to coin a phrase” is often attributed to the minting of coin, although some historians strongly disagree. This theory observes that the term “to coin” was first used in reference to making new money, a trade dating back prior to the 14th century. The phrase was then adapted to mean creating something new and has been used in this way for centuries. From this, some historian conclude the idiom “to coin a phrase”, meaning to create a new expression, was born.
The alternative viewpoint is that “to coin a phrase” derived from the printing trade. In a printing sense, a quoin (Image Left) is a metal wedge, often with an expanding device that allows a typesetter to lock type into a large, cast frame called a chase (Image Right). A quoin is expanded or contracted using a tool called a quoin key. The quoin was used to lock type in place for newspapers, advertisements, fliers, books and more. Over the years, quoins were used to hold countless amounts of new and original phrases in place. Through this relationship, the idiom “to coin a phrase” was born. Due to perhaps a lack of understanding, or simply just adaption into more commonly spoken English the spelling of quoin was lost and became “coin”.
These two viewpoints into the origin of “to coin a phrase” are each supported with substantial evidence. The truth, as it commonly does, probably lies somewhere in the middle. The term “to coin” was created in the coin minting trade, but was then adapted for use in printing and from there developed into the expression we still use today. At the Gateway Museum at Nature’s Art Village, guests can explore many of these old trades, including printing shops, where both modern idioms and inventions originated. To learn more about these trades, their history and how they have influenced modern culture, visit The Gateway Museum at Nature’s Art Village on Route 85 in Montville, Connecticut and The Gateway Gazette exhibit, our 19th to 20th century print shop!
Check back next week for another Trivia Tuesday!