here the penny drops [hear the penny drop] / light bulb moment

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susanna76

Senior Member
Romanian
Hi there,

I'm reading a book by an Englishman and he uses an expression similar to what we have in Romanian: "the penny dropped", as in "I'm halfway to the door, when the penny dropped." In Romania we express this idea of a sudden realization of something with virtually the same expression -- only we use "token" (as in coin for a machine) instead of penny.

I wonder, are there variations of this expression in American English, Canadian English, etc.? I know that "light bulb moment" is used in American English but am wondering about this "penny dropped" phrase, whether it's been adopted and adapted.

Question number 2: Are there other phrases you use to express this idea of "a belated realization of something after a period of confusion or misunderstanding" (phrases.org.uk)?

Thanks a lot.
 
  • ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Hi Susanna.
    2: It's not quite the same thing but a Road-to-Damascus moment/change/experience is one where you suddenly realize that your previous way of thinking was wrong: you suddenly 'see the light'. (It's from the Bible ~ Acts 3: 19, the conversion of Paul/Saul.)
     
    Hello, I use this old thread for asking you to please help me define with more precision the use of the idiomatic expression "Here the penny drops!" that I hear sometimes from British people.

    Can it be used in the general sense of "The truth is revealed now!" like in this sort of dialogue:

    A: What's up, John? I can't believe you drove up here with this weather just to ask me if I'm alright...

    B: Well... er... you know that project I told you I had in mind?

    A: Here the penny drops! You need money.

    I also wanted to ask if this is a strictly BrE thing or if it is also used in the USA (provided that the word "penny" is still used in figurative speech...).
    Thank you very much.
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    We usually use this expression when talking about someone in the third person, or about our own past experience.

    'I had to explain it to him ten times before the penny dropped.'
    'I couldn't understand him at first; then the penny dropped. He was talking about a different occasion'.


    The image is drawn from the early days of slot machines, which were not reliable: it often took repeated attempts to get the penny to fall where it should.
     
    Thank you wandle, I noticed actually that it is easier to find the expression in the past tense.
    I see that the meaning seems related to the idea of (the difficulty of) understanding something.
    Do you think, then, that the dialogue above (which was my own invention) does not represent a proper use of the expression?
    Thank you.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    It is not very natural, simply because the expression normally refers to a sudden enlightenment following puzzlement.

    The person who has that enlightenment may well comment on it later, but at the time we do not stop to do so.
    Typically, we come straight to the point as soon as we see it: 'Aha! You're after money'.
     

    EStjarn

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    I also wanted to ask if this is a strictly BrE thing or if it is also used in the USA....
    Not sure about strictly, but it seems it's not common in AmE. Here's from a related thread, the penny dropped vs the other shoe dropped:
    .
    "In fact, yesterday I wrote to someone to say, 'I'm so thick - but the penny has dropped' in a message to an American (who I think has lived in the UK before), but his response indicated puzzlement."


    "Lately I have been using the expression "the penny dropped" and encountered blank (Canadian) looks. This happens sometimes, but mostly when I used the wrong language. [...] Now I'm stumped where I may have picked up this expression: I never lived in the UK, and I don't think I learned it in HS English class! I can only think of having read it, somewhere, sometime!"
    .
    Also, Cambridge Idioms Dictionary (here) describes the idiom as "British & Australian." It is not listed in Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms though other idioms containing the word 'penny' are, namely "a penny for your thoughts" and "penny wise and pound foolish."

    EDIT: I just found a related thread in the French-English Vocabulary forum, avoir le déclic, in which an American member says:
    .
    "I've never heard "the penny dropped"- it may be British (??)-- I would say "Suddenly a light bulb went off" or, as Edwingill suggests "It suddenly clicked." - which seems to me to be the best translation..."
    .
     
    Last edited:
    That's great Kate! I didn't even think at this possibility. Matter of fact, being a non native I found very difficult to distinguish hear from here in speech (and I'm not sure about drop/drops too...) and I've never seen this expression in writing...
    I think hear the penny drop makes more sense, but can I ask you to please provide an example of how you would use it?
    Thank you very much:).
     

    Sparky Malarky

    Moderator
    English - US
    Just an annecdote: My daughter's first-grade teacher was from Ireland. At a conference with the teacher, she was telling me that my daughter did not know how to read yet, but she was just beginning to catch on. The teacher kept saying "You can see that penny just beginning to drop."

    I had no idea what in the world she was talking about. What penny? What is she trying to tell me? But the teacher had such a lovely accent that I just wanted to listen to her voice and didn't want to interrupt her to ask. Besides, I could understand the gist of what she was trying to tell me about my daughter.

    Later I ran across the expression "the penny dropped" in books and understood why she was using the phrase.
     
    Just an annecdote: My daughter's first-grade teacher was from Ireland. At a conference with the teacher, she was telling me that my daughter did not know how to read yet, but she was just beginning to catch on. The teacher kept saying "You can see that penny just beginning to drop."

    I had no idea what in the world she was talking about. What penny? What is she trying to tell me? But the teacher had such a lovely accent that I just wanted to listen to her voice and didn't want to interrupt her to ask. Besides, I could understand the gist of what she was trying to tell me about my daughter.

    Later I ran across the expression "the penny dropped" in books and understood why she was using the phrase.
    This is very interesting Sparky. It seems to suggest that the possible use of this expression is much wider than I have thought.
     

    Sparky Malarky

    Moderator
    English - US
    This is very interesting Sparky. It seems to suggest that the possible use of this expression is much wider than I have thought.
    I think she was using the phrase in a rather non-standard way, which added to my confusion. If she had said something like "Your daughter didn't understand what I wanted and then the penny dropped" I would probably have understood much faster from context. And if I had been familiar with the phrase I would have understood her unusual way of using it.
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    chipulukusu said:
    That's great Kate! I didn't even think at this possibility. Matter of fact, being a non native I found very difficult to distinguish hear from here in speech (and I'm not sure about drop/drops too...) and I've never seen this expression in writing...
    chipulukusu said:
    I think hear the penny drop makes more sense, but can I ask you to please provide an example of how you would use it?
    Thank you very much:).


    I'm not surprised you find it "very difficult" to distinguish between here and hear. I find it impossible. Perhaps there are dialects that differentiate, but if so, I've not run across them (or perhaps my ear just never picked up the difference), and my dialect is definitely not one of them. The only way you can tell which one I am using is from the context.

    The image that I think of when I hear "hear the penny drop" is that of a vending machine (back in the days when you could actually get something for a penny from a vending machine) such as a bubblegum machine. You put the coin in, and sometimes there's a handle that you have to turn, and you can hear when the coin drops into place so that the machine will dispense the gum or whatever it is that you're buying. I have always assumed that was the origin of this expression, though I could be wrong about that. What "hear the penny drop" means to me, then, is that you've just acquired the final piece of information that was needed. This is also sometimes called an "aha moment," that instant when something that has eluded you finally becomes clear.

    For example, the moment when you suddenly realize that rather than saying "Excuse me while I kiss this guy," what Jimi Hendrix is actually saying is "Excuse me while I kiss the sky" could be described as the moment when you hear the penny drop. But it can be used for more significant things, too, such as when you're working on an important project and something significant falls into place in your mind.
     
    I'm not surprised you find it "very difficult" to distinguish between here and hear. I find it impossible. Perhaps there are dialects that differentiate, but if so, I've not run across them (or perhaps my ear just never picked up the difference), and my dialect is definitely not one of them. The only way you can tell which one I am using is from the context.
    Probably thinking that it may be distinguishable is an aspect of not being a native:D

    The image that I think of when I hear "hear the penny drop" is that of a vending machine (back in the days when you could actually get something for a penny from a vending machine) such as a bubblegum machine. You put the coin in, and sometimes there's a handle that you have to turn, and you can hear when the coin drops into place so that the machine will dispense the gum or whatever it is that you're buying. I have always assumed that was the origin of this expression, though I could be wrong about that. What "hear the penny drop" means to me, then, is that you've just acquired the final piece of information that was needed. This is also sometimes called an "aha moment," that instant when something that has eluded you finally becomes clear.
    Thanks Kate, it could not have been explained better than this! I understand now when and how to use it in the present tense.:)

    For example, the moment when you suddenly realize that rather than saying "Excuse me while I kiss this guy," what Jimi Hendrix is actually saying is "Excuse me while I kiss the sky" could be described as the moment when you hear the penny drop.
    And thank you for this inspirational quote!:):)
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    It can easily be used in the past tense, too:
    "When I realized he was saying sky, not guy, that's when I heard the penny drop."
    "I found out that he had lied about where he was that night. That's when I heard the penny drop."

    And you're welcome!:)
     
    I think she was using the phrase in a rather non-standard way, which added to my confusion. If she had said something like "Your daughter didn't understand what I wanted and then the penny dropped" I would probably have understood much faster from context. And if I had been familiar with the phrase I would have understood her unusual way of using it.
    Yes I understand how it is non-standard use.
    But, after what I've learned in this thread, if I have to describe the moment in which I started understanding people speaking in a new language I was learning, I think "that was the moment when I heard the coin drop" is absolutely perfect!
     

    EStjarn

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    I suggest that 'hear the penny drop' is derived from 'the penny drops' and that they normally have slightly different meanings. It seems from the Google Books results that the former normally means that one realizes that someone else has just realized something.

    Here are a few of the usage examples:
    .
    I could almost hear the penny drop in Jennifer's head. It probably didn't hit much on the way down. A ghastly recognition slid over her face, and her eyes went glassy with embarrassment.

    Sometimes you can hear the penny drop when they realise what they have to do to better manage their condition.

    It took about two seconds before he realised the significance of what she was saying. She could almost hear the penny drop.
    .
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    I suggest that 'hear the penny drop' is derived from 'the penny drops' and that they normally have slightly different meanings....
    ... the former normally means that one realizes that someone else has just realized something.
    Yes. The classical form of this is 'almost hear the penny drop':

    The Vine
    In most of the interviews you can almost hear the penny drop as some realisation hits them.

    RepRap: Blog
    I especially liked the bit where Adrian is explaining "overhang" and the interviewer suddenly gets it. You can almost hear the penny drop.

    Teaching Music To Children
    You could almost hear the penny drop as they understood the fundamental concept

    RNLI
    You could almost hear the penny drop, across the airwaves
     
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