In for a penny, in for a pound

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A former US cabinet secretary-turned-pundit was on television the other day, referring to someone or some ones as being "in for a dime, in for a dollar." (I'm pretty sure it was former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, but I was doing six other things at the time at my workstation, so don't quote me on that.)

Whoever it was, it made me think: Didn't I just hear some British voice on the radio speaking of being "in for a penny, in for a pound"? And wasn't the place both were talking about - where they and their respective countries are "in" - Iraq?

Sen. John McCain used the same idiom - in its dollar form, of course, patriotic American that he is - in an interview with FOX News last fall.

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Given the 10-to-1 ratio of dimes to dollars, and the 100-to-1 ratio of pence to pounds (240 to 1 if you want to go back to before decimalization in 1971), you'd have to say the British aren't getting a very good return on their investment of political capital in Iraq.

"Having entered upon a matter, one must carry it through whatever it involves," is how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses "in for a penny, in for a pound." Something tells me we'll be hearing more of this idiom.

Another version of IFAP2, from an online explainer of English idioms, is this: "If you start something, it's better to spend the time or money necessary to complete it."

And on an online discussion of science fiction as a genre, I ran across the phrase used en passant, and explained thus: "In other words, as long as I'm in trouble I may as well compound it." This brings to mind a darker idiom, "You might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb." If you're going to get in trouble anyway, in other words, you may as well go for what you really want.

Urban Dictionary, a reference for slang and extreme language, speculates that the phrase is rooted in '70s street culture.

Well, maybe. Maybe the street culture of the 1670s - in England. IFAP2 pops up in the 1695 play "The Canterbury Guests, or a Bargain Broken," a Restoration comedy by Edward Ravenscroft, with incidental music by Henry Purcell.

This is the work the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist referenced as the source of IFAP2 when he used it in his 2001 opinion in a case known as Atkinson Trading Company v. Shirley.

The case had to do with whether an Indian tribe in Arizona could collect a hotel occupancy tax in an establishment accessible via public highways. Go figure: from Restoration England to the Arizona desert.

Metaphors based on money circulate around the planet as widely as money itself. "A penny for your thoughts," we say. We speak of "coining" a phrase. Sometimes the currency is exchanged: pounds for dollars. But sometimes it isn't: "Penny-wise and pound-foolish" is the idiom on both sides of the Atlantic.

On the other hand, Americans can speak with authority of a sure thing as "dollars to doughnuts," as for example, "It's dollars to doughnuts that he'll get the job." The idea was that someone truly confident would bet something valuable (dollars) against something insignificant. The OED cites earlier variants - dollars to buttons and even "dollars to cobwebs." And cobwebs are about as insignificant as it gets - unless you're a spider. And that's my two cents' worth.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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