A Pretty Penny – NOT!

Reporter on ABC World News Tonight, January 3, 2015:

The meters may change in the future, but parking here in Sycamore will still cost only a pretty penny.

Many folks utter an oxymoron* and don’t realize it, nor probably care. Yet wild-eyed Wordies are waiting to jump all over ’em. For all that, journalists who have earned national exposure should know better – and a prime example follows.

The scene: Sycamore, Illinois, a town some 70 miles west of Chicago. The subject: Parking that costs the same as it did when Harry S. Truman was president: a penny for 12 minutes. (The parking meters themselves also date from way back when.) The perpetrator: a male broadcast journalist whose name I didn’t catch – and just as well, since his glaring misuse of a common idiom cost him a good bit of credibility. He assumed the adjective pretty in a pretty penny, a phrase dating back to the 1500s, takes the sense of “attractive” or “pleasant”… but it actually takes the sense of “substantially” or “considerably,” as in “He’s a pretty strong guy.” Therefore, the reporter unwittingly turned a pretty penny into an oxymoron, given that it is a synonym for expensive, pricey, and costly (think “That new dress must have cost her a pretty penny!”).

Or could I be making a mountain out of a molehill? (FYI, an idiom that has been around since the mid-1600s.) If you think there’s no reason for me to get my knickers in a knot (c.1968), please do not hesitate to let me know – or, to use another commonly used penny idiom, a penny for your thoughts (mid-1700s).

*Oxymoron = paired words whose meanings are contradictory – e.g., “true myth,” “apathetic interest,” and “serious joke.”

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