Penny dreadful


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Penny dreadful'?

A cheap publication, containing melodramas written in a colourful and down-market style.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Penny dreadful'?

Penny Dreadfuls were real
Victorian magazines. And
yes, they did cost a penny
and the stories were pretty
dreadful.

Penny dreadful is a rather dated expression and isn’t a description that is aimed at publications these days, not least because you can no longer buy magazines for a penny.

The expression is American and came into use in the late 19th century as a pejorative term for the numerous cheap crime magazines that purveyed poorly written and hackneyed storylines. The establishment were critical of the time spent on such by the working classes, as this comment in the North American Review, 1861 indicates:

They can read the ‘penny dreadful’, but they cannot darn their stockings or mend their shoes.

The term has recently been co-opted as the title of a popular British-American drama television series.

Trend of penny dreadful in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.