Final Word

Will Halfpenny let the penny drop for Springboks?


If Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny did not ‘drop the penny’ for Springbok rugby last Saturday in Cardiff, our national team is in deeper – hmmm, let’s call it ‘trouble’ for now – than many might think.

Halfpenny scored most of Wales’s points in their record 27-13 win over the Springboks, courtesy of ill-discipline by the latter that allowed him regularly to aim at the goalposts.

The definition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for the phrase ‘the penny dropped’ is ‘a belated realization of something after a period of confusion or ignorance’, or that ‘a person has belatedly put two and two together or understood something’.

The origin of the phrase, as so often happens with figure of speech expressions, can be traced back to technological innovation. In this instance an invention of the Victorian age – the ‘slot machine’. A coin had to be dropped through a slit to get a mechanism to perform a desired function.

The most common use of this type of device, introduced in the United Kingdom during the 1930s, was much less spectacular than today’s ‘one-arm bandits’ that adults visiting casinos or kids in a game alley are familiar with.

The most common use of this mechanism at the time was at British public toilets. Users had to 'spend a penny' to unlock the door.

Now, imagine someone waiting for a penny-in-the-slot mechanism (which often jammed) to operate, and the relief (figuratively speaking) when, after some hammering on the door, the penny finally dropped. Not much more imagination is needed to get a picture of the sort of problem we had in mind the Springboks could be in if the penny did not drop.

For the sake of comprehensiveness, we have to mention that even then the new technology, ‘Victorian times’ or not, served to ‘corrupt’ the youth of the day and  penny-slot arcades popped up all over the place.

The OED's earliest citation of the use of the phrase, indicating that it has made the migration to figurative use with the 'now I understand' meaning, is from an article in The Daily Mirror in August 1939: “And then the penny dropped, and I saw his meaning!”

End of horrible year

Doing our research for this column, we came across at least one sport commentator who described the Springboks’ performance against Wales as the end of an annus horribilis for the South African national team.

Annus horribilis is a Latin phrase, meaning ‘horrible year’. It is the opposite of annus mirabilis, which means ‘wonderful year’. While annus mirabilis is a traditional term, annus horribilis is of relatively recent coinage, according to The Phrase Finder website.

We are told that the horribilis version of the phrase, recorded since the mid-1980s, was brought into popular use after Queen Elizabeth II used it to describe 1992 – the year that the marriages of her two sons Charles and Andrew broke down and Windsor Castle caught fire.

Final word

We must confess that in the context of the Springboks’ performance this year, the temptation was to spell the annus of the phrase with a single ‘n’. It would still have had its roots in Latin, but would have indicated “the opening at the end of the alimentary canal through which solid waste matter leaves the body”.

by Piet Coetzer

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