The penny has dropped

2012-04-20 13:08



The penny has dropped

Reader question:

Please explain “the penny” and this sentence: The penny has dropped – that now is a good time to invest in the stock market. What penny?

My comments:

Originally, the penny is in the slot machine – here, the penny is spoken figuratively.

The statement means something like this: Now that the waiting period of uncertainty is over, you may finally do something – and perhaps decide it is a good time to buy more stocks.

The proverbial penny may refer to a piece of welcoming news stock market players have been waiting for. It could be, for example, a new encouraging policy announced by the government to stimulate the market. Prior to its announcement, people have been a bit anxious, fingering their cash in the pocket, so to speak, not knowing whether it is a good idea to keep it there or to invest the money in the market.

“The penny drops”, you see, is the idiom in question. It is, I suspect, an American idiom, judging from its simplicity. The expression originates, understandably, from the use of the slot machine. Each time you insert a piece of coin, be it a penny, dime, nickel or quarter, you wait a while for the metal to drop or register with the machine. Then you hear the clicking sound – the sound of the penny dropping – and know you can proceed with the transaction.

If the machine somehow gets stuck, however, you don’t hear the clicking sound, which means the penny hasn’t dropped, the machine is not working. You can gently tap the machine or you can thump it, but you cannot do anything until the penny drops.

That is how the situation is regarding the penny dropping. It represents a waiting period, a period of anxiety, confusion or frustration but above all uncertainty.

In short, nothing doing – until the penny drops.

In other words, everything will be clear after the penny drops.

Alright, media examples:

1. The European Commission has warned of an impending skills shortage that could threaten competitiveness on a global level.

According to EC vice president Antonio Tajani, there are major concerns of a bottleneck for tech sector growth, stemming from a lack of relevant IT skills being taught in schools.

While young people know their way around cutting edge technology, knowledge is predominantly on a consuming basis, rather than creative.

According to Tajani, the situation “threatens to hamper European innovation and global competitiveness”, claiming that it is “crucial” that creativity is increased to boost new start-ups and aid entrepreneurship….

According to Adam Thilthorpe, Director of Professionalism at the Chartered Institute of IT, the EU and the UK have “every right to be concerned”.

He told TechEye that there is “massive demand” for highly skilled workers with the prevelance of technology in our daily lives.

“With the changing nature of the global economy I think that is going to become more and more apparent,” he said. “Manufacturing and natural resources can’t be relied upon to generate GDP here.”

“The knowledge economy is something where we can drive GDP growth,” Thilthorpe said, “it is of major importance.”

Thilthorpe agrees that it has taken a long time for policy makers to react to looming skills shortages.

The penny has dropped – it took a long time coming. It is very difficult to deny that IT has become absolutely ubiquitous,” he said. “People are beginning to understand that if they get stuff right they can reap the benefits very quickly.”

- EU warns over European IT skills crisis,, March 22, 2012.

2. I asked our server if the fruit in the “fresh fruit cup” was in fact fresh. She looked slightly puzzled, as if not quite understanding my question. She began talking about how it was in a cup, and it was fresh, but it was in a cocktail. (I think she meant cocktail liquid or syrup perhaps.) It was this and it was that. I found her answer confusing, but she did appear to be totally sincere and trying.

Finally I said, “Is the fruit actually cut up in your kitchen and put in a bowl?”

That’s when the penny dropped. She replied, “No, it comes in a tub from Sysco.” (Sysco sells processed foods that allow restaurants to cut back on labour.)

So, my question is, why call this stuff “fresh fruit” on a menu? Has the term been co-opted to mean bottled, canned, tubbed, preserved, dried or powdered? Personally, I’ve always been under the impression that fresh fruit meant fruit that had come — with possibly an intervening plane or truck ride — pretty much straight from the orchard or field.

I’m not questioning a restaurant’s decision to sell tubbed, canned or bottled fruit. That’s a business decision and more power to them. I’ll never order it because I don’t think it tastes like fruit — never mind fresh — and I don’t like it.

But it is misleading to call it fresh fruit on a menu. That is simply wrong and Rumpelstiltskins and every other restaurant doing it should stop. Call it a fruit cup. Period.

We wouldn’t think of calling fish that was frozen (or tinned or dried) fresh. So why should fruit be any different?

- Nothing grim about Rumpelstiltskin’s,, March 24, 2012.

3. For an essay in the magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of the first production of “Death of a Salesman,” I visited Arthur Miller at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1999. With his wife, the photographer Inge Morath, we went to the cabin in the woods that Miller built in order to write the play. (Morath herself had never seen the cabin in all the years they’d been living in Roxbury.) The following is selection of some of the things Miller said about the play during our day together. The newest Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman,” starring Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Linda Emond, and Andrew Garfield, directed by Mike Nichols, with the original stage design of Jo Mielziner, opens at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway on March 15, and continues through June 2.

LAHR: Tell me about your family friend Manny Newman.

MILLER: Well, Willy Loman was based on him…. I was standing in the lobby of the Colonial Theatre in Boston in ’47—a matinee of “All My Sons,” I guess that would have been, and I hadn’t seen him in, oh, fifteen years maybe. I saw him coming out of the theatre at the end of the show, and I was delighted to see him, because I always loved to see him. And he had tears in his eyes at the end of the play. He saw me. We confronted one another. And he said, referring to his eldest son—out of the blue, now mind you I haven’t seen this man in all those years—he said, “Bobby is doing very well.” That was the name of his son. Manny was living in two places at the same time. And I thought, Wouldn’t it be marvellous to be able to do a play where somebody is in two or three different place concurrently. That’s when the penny dropped.

Manny lived in his own mind all the time. He never got out of it. Everything he said was totally unexpected. People regarded him as a kind of strange, completely untruthful personality. Very charming. I thought of him as a kind of wonderful inventor. For example, at will, he would suddenly say, “That’s a lovely suit you have on.” And for no reason at all, he’d say, “Three hundred dollars.” Now, everybody knew he never paid three hundred dollars for a suit in those days. At a party, he would lie down on his wife’s lap and pretend to be sucking her breast. He’d curl up on her lap—she was an immense woman. It was crazy. At the same time, there was something in him which was terribly moving. It was very moving, because his suffering was right on his skin, you see.

LAHR: What was the suffering you saw that you wanted to dramatize?

MILLER: Failure in the face of surrounding success. He was the ultimate climber up the ladder who was constantly being stepped on. His fingers were being stepped on by those climbing past him. My empathy for him was immense. And I mean, how could he possibly have succeeded? There was no way. Excepting that he’d been a pretty decent salesman in his young years. You know, he brought home enough money to raise a family of several boys. He had two daughters as well. And they lived reasonably well…. He committed suicide. That helped confirm my feeling that this man was always half in darkness. The darkness split him in half. The play was basically looking from the edge of the grave at life.

LAHR: Was that implied in the name you gave him? Loman. Low man.

MILLER: I’ll tell you exactly where it came from, because it surprised me. I picked that out of the air. It was always Loman. But I would say roughly ’53 or ’54, I’m walking down Forty-second Street, where all these old movie houses were. And I see the “The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse,” Fritz Lang’s picture.

Well, I had seen that in the thirties or early forties sometime. Way back. I thought, gee, boy, remember that picture was a marvellous movie. I’m gonna go in and see it again. I went in. Briefly, the story is of a detective in Paris—well, a lot of fires are going on in Paris. The chief detective of Paris is bewildered, because they cannot find a profit motive in any of it. An orphanage is burned, a hospital. So on and so on.

So he goes to see the greatest psychiatrist in France, Dr. Mabuse. He describes what’s happening, and Mabuse says, No, you’re looking the wrong way. He says, the people who are doing this, are not interested in profit at all. They want to destroy the world. The detective’s name in the movie was Lohmann. And the chief, he sends detectives out all over Paris. Wherever there’s a fire, they go quickly to see if there are the same people witnessing the fire. And this guy calls, sees the same guy at three different fires. So he tracks him into a printing plant in the middle of the night. And it’s marvellous photography, through the printing machinery. A door opens, the guy goes down through a passageway and into an auditorium, where sit about a dozen people separated from each other. One guy’s a butcher, obviously, another guy’s a businessman, another guy’s maybe a bohemian. And he sits down, and, from behind the curtain, a voice begins to say, “Now, on Tuesday, we’re going to burn down this church, and we want you to be there at five o’clock.” And he runs up to the curtain and separates it, and it’s a phonograph. A record playing. The other guys see him do this, and the chase is on. So he’s running all over this building, runs into a room, turns on the light, shuts the door, and calls on the phone. And by this time, one is terrified, because it’s marvellously done. And he says, “Lohmann.” And the lights go out on him. The next shot, he’s in an insane asylum, hysterical. And he’s saying, “Lohmann? Lohmann?”

I’m now in ’53. I’ve written the play three or four years earlier. And I said, My God, that’s where I got that name. It surprised me when people said “low man.” It had no such thematic origin. Nothing like that. Came out of Fritz Lang.

- Walking with Arthur Miller, Posted by John Lahr, March 1, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


The straight and narrow?

Don’t wear it on your sleeve

Leaving it at that

A qualified ‘yes’?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)



















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