A dime a dozen

What’s the meaning of the phrase ‘A dime a dozen’?

Very common. (Or [they] are easily and readily available.)

What’s the origin of the phrase ‘A dime a dozen’? 

This is an American phrase that originated in America, following the origin of a dime in 1796. 

Following the introduction of the dime, many traders began advertising their products at “A dime a dozen”. (The older version of ‘Buy one get one free’.) At the time, this was considered a good deal, because it worked out at less than a cent per item.

However, over time, the meaning of the phrase has changed. By 1930, people began to use the phrase to refer to objects (or even ideas and professions) that are cheap, common, ordinary, nothing special, unoriginal, or simply easy to come by. Another phrase that has a similar meaning would be ‘Run of the mill.’

One very early known written form of the phrase being used in this context was in the newspaper The Northern Miner, published in 1931, where it read ‘Caners, the old timer said, is just an overgrown clown. As for the others – Schaof, Baer, Paulino, Risko, Campolo – they’re nothing but dime a dozen fighters.’

So the meaning of the phrase has changed considerably over the centuries, from being a very positive expression at the time of origin, to becoming something of an insult in more recent years.

What are some notable uses of the phrase ‘A dime a dozen’?

In his book ‘East of Eden’ published in 1952, John Steinbeck uses the phrase to describe characters who are common, with no defining features. The phrase serves to emphasise the insignificance of these characters in the broader narrative.

There have been two songs titled ‘Dime a Dozen’ and ‘A Dime a Dozen’. One by Carla Thomas in 1967, and one by Tessa Violet released in 2019. In both cases, the purpose of the phrase is to impress its current meaning of commonality.

The phrase is frequently used in casual conversation and in TV programmes such as ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Friends’.

Trend of a dime a dozen in printed material over time

Cari Mayhew - Author at Phrase Finder

Cari Mayhew

Lifelong learner, phrase fanatic, and lover of literature across multiple genres. Cari Mayhew has a passion for expression, and a keen curiosity for how phrases begin and how their use transforms over time. She is often found looking for the ideal idiom to convey her thoughts and musings.