Bad Penny – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to describe a useless person who seems to have a habit of showing up at exactly the wrong time? You could call that person a “bad penny”. Learn more about this phrase and its origin here, and discover how to use it in a sentence.

​​​Meaning

A “bad penny” is a counterfeit coin. When used to describe a person, a bad penny means a worthless, shady, morally questionable, unpleasant, or annoying person.

The phrase “a bad penny” is typically used in the idiom “a bad penny always turns up”. This expression is used to describe the way in which people you don’t want to see have a way of making their way back into your life.

You can also use the phrase “bad penny” to refer to unpleasant objects or circumstances.

​​​Example Usage

Take a look at these examples to get a better idea of the way in which you can use the phrase “a bad penny” in a sentence:

  • “My drug-addicted sister is like a bad penny. She’ll turn up after years, usually when she’s in desperate need of money.”
  • “We’d been wondering what happened to that pizza slice my young nephew took off with. We found it four months later, covered in mold. Just goes to show, a bad penny always turns up!”
  • “The old man next doors is a bad penny. You can always count on him to turn up to complain about the noise when you vacuum, put on quiet music, or sometimes even when you just dare to breathe!”

​​​Origin

The idiom “a bad penny always turns up” has been in use since at least the fourteenth century, when William Langland used the phrase “bad penny” in a poem:

“Men may lykne letterid men… to a badde peny.”

In modern English, this sentence reads: “Men may liken lettered [educated] men… to a bad penny.”

A “bad penny” means a worthless person — but why? This idea can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Before coins were standardized, it was quite common to clip small bits off. The metal gained in this way could be used to make new coins, but the clipped coin would be valueless.

These clipped coins were known as “bad pennies“.

The phrase “a bad penny” has had a surprising amount of staying power, given that coins can no longer be manipulated in this way and fewer and fewer people rely on cash at all.

If you agree that the story behind the “bad penny” is fascinating, using the phrase in a piece of writing or in your everyday language connects you to a long history, and helps to preserve this interesting idiom.

​Phrases Similar to Bad Penny

Instead of “bad penny”, you can also use the following phrases to describe worthless or otherwise questionable people:

  • Rotten apple
  • Bad news
  • Troublemaker
  • Bad egg

​Phrases Opposite to Bad Penny

The opposite of a bad penny is someone you’re glad to have in your life. You could say:

  • Worth [a person’s] salt — this phrase means someone trustworthy and reliable.
  • Shining light
  • Good egg

​​What Is the Correct Saying?

The correct phrase is “a bad penny”, meaning a worthless person. It is usually found in the idiom “a bad penny always turns up”, meaning the people you least want to see have a way of finding you.

​​​Ways People May Say Bad Penny Incorrectly

You should know that the phrase “a bad penny” is almost always used in combination with the ending “always turns up”. Using “a bad penny” on its own is not incorrect, but merely more unusual.

Use your judgment and try to use the phrase only when your audience will understand what idiom you’re referring to when you say “bad penny”.

​​​Acceptable Ways to Phrase Bad Penny

You can call a person you deem worthless or annoying a bad penny. This phrase works best when the person in question tends to show up when you least expect it or really wish they hadn’t made an appearance. In that case, the connection to the idiom “a bad penny always turns up” is clear.

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