A Bad Penny Always Turns Up

‘A Bad Penny Always Turns Up’ Meaning

‘A bad penny always turns up’ means someone might visit you uninvited at the last minute. It is an old English proverb and a complete sentence. This proverb is often used when an unwanted person or one who appears during a good event and disrupts a peaceful environment. Though people avoid such a person, she/he turns up at the last minute causing discomfort. Rarely, the proverb is used when work is disrupted near the completion. This proverb ‘turn up like a bad penny’ also has the same meaning.

Origin of ‘A Bad Penny Always Turns Up’

The origin of the proverb “a bad penny always turns up” lies in the same thing that comes to mind after reading. It is the coin that is fake and becomes useless for the holder. When coins came into use in the world for the first time, they also became bad due to clipping and excessive usage. Therefore, they were considered useless during Edward I’s rule in England. William Langland used the phrase “bad penny” for the first time in his popular poem Piers Plowman. For example, ‘Men may lykne letterid men …to a bade peny’.

Another origin of this phrase is traced to Aristophanes Plutus translated by a popular novelist of the 18th century, Henry Fielding. Fielding explained that ‘A bad penny always turns up’ has been taken from Greek and that it is a metaphor. He states ‘We have a Proverb in English not unlike it, a bad Penny’.

Yet another origin is referred to Sir Walter Scott. It is mentioned that this phrase is approximately from the 18th century and specific usage is unknown. However, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins put it as used by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, Redgauntlet, as “Bring back Darsie? Little doubt of that. The bad shilling is sure enough to come back again.”

Examples in Literature

A Bad Penny by John Tyler Wheelwright

This is a novel written with the first part of this proverb as its title as “A Bad Penny.” It means that its protagonist, James Woodbury, is a bad penny who always returns when he is not needed. In the beginning, he runs away from his home from Massachusetts. Then after going through different hassles, he lands in the famous battle between the Shannon and Chesapeake where he becomes a prisoner and returns after an exchange of prisoners of war. He again reaches home, but ends up becoming a rich man, an owner of a ship and marrying his love, Mary Clay Knapp. This final return shows that he is not a bad penny; instead, he proves otherwise in the end.

Like a Bad Penny by Selena Fulton

This is the story of a widow Danielle Mansfield who has to find means of living with her son, Ethan. She comes to know that her husband has left her high and dry after spending his entire money. She is forced to live in a cabin and hopes for the best for her son who seems to go astray. Finally, she meets her old lover, Matt Kovacs, who has left her when she needed him the most but has again come to her as a “bad penny.” In fact, they revisit their relationships, lies, and deceits with which they deceived each other in the past. The title echoes the proverb by the end of the book when Matt enters like ‘a bad penny’ Danielle chooses to offer him a second chance.

 The Return of the Bad Penny by Gordon H. Dyson

This is a poem by Gordon H. Dyson which starts with the line “The bad penny will not confirm, / That is why he is called the bad penny.” This poem elaborates the meanings of a bad penny exactly like its proverb how a bad penny or a bad person does not fit into society. It states that a bad penny is always in search of another bad penny “To show sympathy” The poem ends on a note how a bad penny causes discomfort to others when he is not needed.

Examples in Sentences as Literary Devices

Example #1: It is used as a metaphor. For example, “He is a bad penny and will always turn up.” It means that the person is discomfort and he is not welcomed when he shows up.

Example #2: This proverb could be used as a metaphor and a phrase. For example, “John is a bad penny. He thinks that he can fit into any situation, but he is mostly unwelcomed when he mixes with the locals.” Here ‘a bad penny’ is an extended metaphor for John.

Example#3: The first part of this proverb could also be used as a simile. For example, “He is like a bad penny and appears when needs not.” Here this phrase is used as a simile to compare a person with a bad penny.

Example#4: This phrase “a bad penny” could also be used as a paradox such as “A bad penny or a good penny, his brother turns up when required and even when not required.” This phrase has been used as a paradox as it lists both good and bad person.