How Coining a Phrase Can Lead to an Inigo Montoya Moment

I do not think it means what you think it means.

Brenda Thomas, writing for
4-minute read
Episode #811
The Quick And Dirty

"To coin a phrase" can be used both to announce that you've created a new phrase and to announce that you've just used a cliché.

Have you ever coined a phrase? How you answer that question depends on what you think it means to coin a phrase. However, what you think it means might not be what someone else thinks it means, even though both of you are correct in what you think it means. Confused? So was I. 

To coin a phrase: the invention

I always thought that “to coin a phrase” meant to create or invent a new saying. One example would be when Thomas Kuhn, in his book from 1962, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” coined the phrase “paradigm shift” that since has become part of our everyday vocabulary. Another example comes from perhaps the most prolific phrase coiner of all: William Shakespeare. The Bard coined, or popularized, many new sayings in his time, such as “send him packing” and it’ll “make your hair stand on end,” and those have been repeated so much they are now considered clichés

To coin a phrase: the announcement

So I was confused when reading a book in which an author wrote, “It is — to coin a phrase — the greatest story ever told,” so confused that I blurted out “Dude, you didn’t coin that phrase!” Did he actually think he was the first to use “the greatest story ever told” saying? Did he write that in jest, and I just didn’t get the joke? Or did he actually not know what “to coin a phrase” meant? I felt a little embarrassed for him. 

Then, a few days later I was reading an essay by a different author who wrote, “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, to coin a phrase.” What? This guy, too? I suddenly felt like Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” needing to say to both of those writers that “I do not think it means what you think it means.” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, to coin a phrase. They used “to coin a phrase” to do what I just did: announce that I knew I used a cliché. 

How both can be correct

Turns out that my understanding and their usage of the “to coin a phrase” saying, though contradicting each other, are both correct. How can that be?  To help us answer that question and reconcile the disparity, consider what Anne Curzan (a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel) said in her “What makes a word ‘real’?” TED Talk. She explained that when the usage of a word changes, acceptable meanings are altered or added. As examples, she pointed out how the changed usage of “peruse” and “decimate” altered or added to their acceptable meanings that are now included in dictionaries. 

“Peruse” originally meant to read something thoroughly and carefully, but now it can also mean “to skim.” 

Decimate” used to refer to reducing something by only one tenth, but now it is acceptably used to refer to complete destruction. 

Curzan concluded her talk by saying, “Dictionaries are a wonderful guide and resource, but there is no objective dictionary authority out there that is the final arbiter about what words mean.”

Usage and meaning

Our tendency might be to think that dictionaries tell us what words or phrases mean absolutely, but actually they are telling us meanings based on past and current usage. But because usage can change, so can meaning. And that’s what’s happened with the “to coin a phrase” saying. 

In the Cambridge, Macmillan, and Collins online dictionaries, the definition of “to coin a phrase” is “to use a cliché." 

But at the Grammarist, Grammar Book, and Phrase Finder websites, the meaning of “to coin a phrase” is “to create a new phrase,” but those resources also explain that usage has resulted in the additional and acceptable, yet contradictory, meaning that it refers to a cliché — simply because that is how people have used the saying. 

Usage affects meaning and, in this case, the acceptable meanings contradict each other. So, what should writers and speakers do? 

What to do

John Bremner, author of “Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care about Words,” sides with those who think “to coin a phrase” means to use a cliché. However, he advises against including that phrase when using a cliché because doing so is as if someone said, “Look, I’m using a cliché but I want you to know I know it’s a cliché.” According to Bremner, announcing the use of a cliché by including “to coin a phrase” comes across as apologizing or even patronizing to an audience. That doesn’t mean that writers and speakers should never use clichés. It just means that they shouldn’t announce that they used a cliché. Plus, some of your readers are likely to have have the same reaction I did and think it’s an error.

But what if writers or speakers create a new phrase? Should they say they coined a phrase? To answer those questions, let’s look again at William Shakespeare. When he created a new phrase, he simply used it without announcement as if it belonged there. Imagine if Polonius in “Hamlet” had said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, to coin a phrase, For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” Including “to coin a phrase” was neither necessary nor helpful. 

The bottom line is that you should avoid inserting “to coin a phrase” to announce that you employed a cliché or invented a new phrase. If you create a new phrase, then use it without announcement. If you use a cliché, then include it without apology. If for no other reason, abstain from using “to coin a phrase” simply because you don’t know what your audience thinks the phrase means and you don’t want to risk causing them to have an Inigo Montoya moment.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Brenda Thomas, writing for Grammar Girl

Brenda Thomas is a freelance writer and online educator.