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Mind your language

Coining a phrase does not mean stealing it

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

My husband has been doing something useful but criminal for the past two years. He reads the sports pages, mostly of the Telegraph, or of other papers if another member of his club has nabbed the Telegraph. When he comes across something promising, he tears out a snippet, none too neatly often, and stuffs it in his top pocket. That is antisocial and deserves expulsion. But it is not for a mere woman to interfere.

I’ve gone through some of his grubby snippets that include the words to coin a phrase. Most are used in the orthodox manner, ‘ironically to introduce a cliché’ as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Brexit allowed these words to be attached to strong and stable, take back control or nothing has changed.


But in my husband’s plunder, examples of to coin a phrase crop up in the erroneous sense of ‘borrow’ or ‘steal’. ‘“India have played musical chairs this series,” to coin a phrase used by our cricket correspondent,’ wrote someone in the Telegraph. ‘To coin a phrase from another Italian loved in SW6, he’s now “the battery in the Chelsea rolex”,’ wrote someone elsewhere. ‘To coin a phrase from someone who knew a thing or two about football…’

Perhaps part of the trouble is that coin means two opposite things. One is ‘to mint’: ‘The right of coining money was never allowed in England, even to the greatest nobles,’ wrote H.T. Buckle in his unfinished history of civilisation. (He worked ten hours a day for 17 years on the project, which was to have filled 14 volumes. He finished three and died at 40.) The other meaning ‘to counterfeit’, is often used figuratively. ‘Shee coined a smile,’ wrote Robert Green (the author of Greenes Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance) in 1589.

Very occasionally, coin a phrase is not ironical but a figurative use of ‘mint’. It has been used like that for 400 years. A dietician recently said: ‘We had to coin a phrase in our clinic: “organically overweight”.’ I’m not worried about that, but about the spread of the notion that it means ‘borrow a phrase’. That is nonsense on stilts, to coin a phrase.


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