coin a phrase

Sometimes interesting words and phrases are right under our noses. After using it countless times on this site, a reader asked me where the term to coin a phrase came from?

The verb to coin originally meant to literally mint a coin. It dates to the 14th century, first appearing in Robert Brunne’s Langtoft’s Chronicle, written about 1330:

The kynge’s side salle be the hede & his name writen; the croyce side what cite it was in coyned & smyten.
(The king’s side shall be the head & [have] his name written [on it]; the cross side [shall have] what city it was coined & smitten in.)

Within a few centuries, the verb was being used more generally. Here’s an example from 1561 in Thomas Norton’s Calvin’s Institution of Christian Religion:

These fellowes unseasonably coyne a mystery.

By the end of the 16th century, the verb to coin was being used to refer to the creation of a new word or phrase. From the anonymous The Arte of English Poesie (1589; generally attributed to George Puttenham, but authorship is uncertain):

Young schollers not halfe well studied...when they come to their friends...will seeme to coigne fine wordes out of the Latin.

Some believe that usage of to coin in this fashion is actually an error, believing instead that it should be to quoin, a printer’s term meaning to secure a block of type with a quoin, or metal wedge. So to quoin a phrase is to set it into type or make it permanent. But quoin is simply a spelling variant of coin that is primarily used in this specialized printing sense. The general sense meaning to create is invariably spelled coin.

The ironic use of the phrase to coin a phrase to excuse a clichè dates to at least 1940. From F.B. Young’s Mr. Lucton’s Freedom of that year:

It takes all sorts to make a world, to coin a phrase.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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