Two cents, common sense, incense, and peppermints

The 2/26 One Big Happy, riffing on /sɛns/, in idioms with sense (common sense, horse sense, nonsense), in incense, and in cents (also in an idiom, two cents):


Which, of course, leads us inevitably to the psychedelic days of 1967, with their whiff of incense and peppermints (plus some pot).

Senses of sense. Relevant uses of sense in NOAD‘s entry:

noun sense: 1 a faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus; one of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch [the five senses]: the bear has a keen sense of smell that enables it to hunt at dusk. 2 [a] a feeling that something is the case: she had the sense of being a political outsider. [b] an awareness or feeling that one is in a specified state: you can improve your general health and sense of well-being. [c] (sense of) a keen intuitive awareness of or sensitivity to the presence or importance of something: she had a fine sense of comic timing. 3 [a] a sane and realistic attitude to situations and problems: he earned respect by the good sense he showed at meetings. [b] a reasonable or comprehensible rationale: I can’t see the sense in leaving all the work to you. 4 a way in which an expression or a situation can be interpreted; a meaning: it is not clear which sense of the word “characters” is intended in this passage.

And its use in two syntactic idioms and a morphological one:

noun common sense: good sense [sense-3b] and sound judgment in practical matters: [as modifier]: a common-sense approach | use your common sense.

noun horse senseinformal common sense.

noun nonsense: 1 [a] spoken or written words that have no meaning or make no sense [sense-4]: he was talking absolute nonsense. [b] [as exclamation] used to show strong disagreement: “Nonsense! No one can do that.” [the grandmother’s use in panel 4 of #1]. [c] [as modifier] denoting verse or other writing intended to be amusing by virtue of its absurd or whimsical language: nonsense poetry. 2 foolish or unacceptable behavior: put a stop to that nonsense, will you?

The idiom two cents. From Wikipedia:

(#2) “Eenie meenie miney moe. Is Homer a hero? The answer is, no. I’m Kent Brockman, and that was ‘My Two Cents’.” ― Kent Brockman … “My Two Cents” is a segment of the Channel 6 News, usually at the end, where Kent Brockman gives his opinion on certain current affairs, what Brockman himself called “the lighter side of the news”. (SimpsonsWiki site)

“My two cents” (“my 2¢”) and its longer version “put my two cents in” is an American idiomatic expression, taken from the original English idiom “to put in my two-penny worth” or “my two cents”. It is used to preface a tentative statement of one’s opinion. By deprecating the opinion to follow — suggesting its value is only two cents, a very small amount — the user of the phrase, showing politeness and humility, hopes to lessen the impact of a possibly contentious statement. However, it is also sometimes used ironically when expressing a strongly held opinion. The phrase is also sometimes used out of habit to preface uncontentious opinions. For example: “If I may put my two cents in, that hat doesn’t do you any favors.” (A polite way of saying, for example: That hat is ugly). Another example would be: “My two cents is that you should sell your stock now.”

This somewhat rambling entry is an attempt to explain what you can do with the idiom; it needs a lexicographer’s hand. It also doesn’t characterize the idiom in its generality (though it does recognize the larger idiom with put in in it, which other sources do not).

On the form of the idiom. One extension, from Gary Martin’s Phrase Finder site:

What’s the meaning of the phrase ‘Two cents worth’? An individual’s opinion.

… ‘My two cents’ worth’ (or ‘two bits’ worth’) implies that, in order to express and opinion, a small charge is levied. This could well be a simple notional charge and not related to any actual payment.

… This expression is now used in the UK [where Martin lives], even though not many people here know what a cent is.

… The earliest example I can find of the US-variant phrase in print is from the Olean Evening Times, March 1926. That includes an item by Allene Sumner, headed My “Two cents’ worth”.

(I omit everybody’s — inconclusive — speculations about origins.)

This adds the extension with worth, but doesn’t contemplate the (very common) worth-less variant (the only one that Wikipedia recognizes).

One further dimension of variation: the 1sg my in the idiom is not fixed (unlike the my of oh my god / omigod); here’s an example with 3sg his, from Pat O’Connor & Stewart Kellerman’s Grammarphobia site on 11/12/09, “Who put the egg in egg cream?”:

Stanley Auster, a grandson of Louis, got his two cents in when he was interviewed for Jeff Kisseloff’s You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II (1989). … “The name egg cream was really a misnomer,” he said.

The Farlex Dictionary of Idioms (2015) makes the possessor generalization explicit (though it apparently insists on worth):

(one’s) two cents’ worth: one’s opinion or point of view for whatever it may be worth, generally when it is unasked for. I find Jeff’s husband a bit trying at times. He always insists on putting in his two cents’ worth, whether we want his opinion or not! Here’s my two cents’ worth: I think the staff would really appreciate a bump in their pay.

Neither the OED nor NOAD has any version of the expression (yet); your two cents won’t get you to Oxford.

Psychophonetics: cents sense. The cartoon in #1 assumes that cents (also scents — and also sents, the anglicized plural of the noun sent, the name of a former monetary unit of Estonia, equal to one hundredth of a kroon (NOAD)) and sense (also the cense of incense) are homophones, both /sɛns/, though both might have a range of pronunciations

— from [sɛns] (with various lengths of the vowel (a nasalized [ɛ]) and of the final [s]

— through  [sɛnns] (with those variables, plus various lengths of the nasal stop [n])

— through [sɛnnts] (with all those variables, plus various lengths of the oral stop [t], or plus one of the AmE variants of this stop in a vowel offset: a glottal stop [ɂ] or glottalization of the preceding consonant)

Now, cents / scents / sents are plurals, with a plural suffix /s/ (phonetically [s]) attached to a base form that, in isolation, ends in /t/ (phonetically [t] or one of its offset variants), and this morphological analysis ( /…t/ + /s/ ) is represented in the spelling, as …T + S. In contrast, sense / cense are monomorphemic, ending in /ns/, and any transitional oral stop [t] that might be pronounced between a nasal stop realization of /n/ and the oral fricative realization of /s/ is never represented in the spelling.

Despite these differences, the nts words (cents / scents / sents) and the ns words (sense / cense) are what you might call “perceptual homophones”: they all count as “sounding the same”. Similarly with the pairs mints / mince, dents / dense, prints / prince. This homophony can serve as the basis of jokes like the one in this texty cartoon:

(#3) prints/prince: a play on the song title “Some Day My Prince Will Come” from Disney’s Snow White (1937)

(More generally, mints, tints, hints rhyme with since, wince, rinse.)

Now, recall all that stuff, just above, about the range of pronunciations for both nts words and ns words. In a very broad way, what I said holds for all these words. But the detailed facts about production, of particular words by particular people, are much knottier than that.

(Note: my access to the literature on this subject is extremely limited: my personal library is essentially gone, I’m not able to use Stanford’s resources on site, and I have net access only to material I can get for free, which in this case is not much. So I’m relying on my memory here, and I can’t give proper citations to back up what I write. This is the best I can do.)

The crucial observation about production is that some speakers distinguish between nts words and ns words in pronunciation, but they do so in a rather rarefied sense: the difference between their productions of, say, cents and sense, or prints and prince, is statistically significant (usually not dramatically so) with respect to certain measurable characteristics of the speech signal. But the overlap in these productions, especially when you mix in an assortment of speakers (some of whom make no distinction in pronunciation, some of whom make different distinctions in pronunciation), is so great that listeners seem to be unable to use this acoustic information to discriminate between words in perception.

Research on these questions is tricky to do. First, speakers perform some production tasks, which are recorded under carefully controlled conditions: producing carefully framed sentences in which the target words (cents and sense, prints and prince, etc.) occur in comparable contexts; or producing word lists that include the target words. In these tasks, the materials are normally prepared so that two paired target words are not presented close to one another; this is to avoid artefactual behavior in which the speakers (unconsciously) labor to make their productions distinct. In a third task, this artefactual behavior is actually encouraged: the speakers are asked to produce the paired words, like prints and prince, together (as if they were minimal pairs, like pat and cat, or pat and pet, or pat and pad).

Then tokens of individual words from the recordings are played for a set of listeners, who are asked to write down what they hear.

The overall result is that listeners are no damn good at distinguishing cents and sense, or prints and prince, as produced by speakers who make a (statistical) distinction between them. Even listeners who make a (statistical) distinction in production themselves. (I’ve been a subject in an experiment of this sort, involving pairs like writer / rider, which, it turns out, I distinguish (statistically) in my productions, but do not discriminate in perception. It’s kind of unsettling.)

Even the productions from minimal pairs are usually not discriminable perceptually.

All that’s an explanation for why I talked about cents and sense as “perceptual homophones”. Whatever the phonetics, they genuinely sound the same to listeners. Imperfect puns — even ones as distant as friends / fronds and enemies / anemones — can serve as the basis of perfectly good jokes — With fronds like these, who needs anemones?  —  but prince / prints in #3 isn’t one; it’s a perfect pun.

Playing with cents and sense. Plenty of (perfect) puns with these words. In particular, the phrase common cents has been used to give jokey names to organizations having to do with financial judgment. Three from a great many…

Common Cents Stores. From their site:

(#4) The convenience store logo

As a fast growing family-owned business specializing in the convenience store industry, Common Cents is currently working to increase its share of the marketplace by upgrading existing locations, expanding operations in existing markets, and developing new areas.

Initially founded by Gilbert D. Moyle, President, as a wholesaler and retailer of gasoline, diesel fuel, tires, batteries and accessories in western South Dakota, Moyle Petroleum seized the opportunity to enter the convenience store marketplace in 1980 by converting the majority of its service stations to convenience stores. Operating under the business name “Common Cents”, there are currently locations in South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Idaho, and Utah.

The child philanthropy organization. From Wikipedia:

(#5) The child philanthropy logo

Common Cents is a national educational, not-for-profit organization, which specializes in creating and managing service-learning programs for young people between the ages of four and 14. Common Cent’s most popular and best known program is The Penny Harvest, the largest child philanthropy program in the United States.

And the Common Cents Lab of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. From their website:

(#6) The behavioral science lab logo

Making people happier, healthier, and wealthier with behavioral science, at home and abroad.

[from founder Dan Ariely:] “The Center for Advanced Hindsight was created out of our love affair with the hindsight bias, a phenomenon where people find things to be more predictable after they have occurred. This bias is particularly interesting in behavioral science research, where we often hear that our research results are intuitive. But we only hear that they are intuitive if people don’t have to guess beforehand what happened in an experiment. When we ask people to guess the results beforehand, we find they are quite poor at predicting (and therefore the results of the research are not so intuitive after all!)”

… Partners of the Common Cents Lab are tech companies, banks, credit unions, non-profits, and government organizations with the common goal of using behavioral science to improve the financial well-being of low-to moderate-income people in the United States.

Sociophonetics and psychodelia: incense and peppermints, meaningless nouns. Still remaining from the cartoon in #1: incense, where it’s another /sɛns/ word. Which led me instantly, on a cloud of scent, to the song “Incense and Peppermints”, back to 1967. Incense rhymes with sense ok, but whether it rhymes (fully) with peppermints depends on your dialect: for me and for Ed King (who sang the lead on “Incense and Peppermints” in 1967), it’s only a half rhyme — incense with /ɛns/, peppermints with /ɪns/ — and that’s ok (because they’re very similar), but for many AmE speakers they’re perfect rhymes, both with /ɪns/. [Correction added 3/29/19: the lead singer below is Greg Munford; Ed King is the lead guitarist in the background. In any case, both Munford and King had an /ɛn/ – /ɪn/ distinction.]

On the song, from Wikipedia:

(#7) The video: ask not for whom the Strawberry Alarm Clock rings; it rings for thee


“Incense and Peppermints” is a song by the Los Angeles-based psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock. The song is officially credited as having been written by John S. Carter and Tim Gilbert, although it was based on an instrumental idea by band members Mark Weitz and Ed King. It was released as the A-side of a single in May 1967 [when King was 17, and I was 26] by Uni Records

And about King, who died last year:

Edward Calhoun King (September 14, 1949 – August 22, 2018) was an American musician. He was a guitarist for the psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock and guitarist and bassist for the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1972 to 1975 and again from 1987 to 1996.

The lyrics, earnest psychodelia:

Good sense, innocence, cripplin’ mankind
Dead kings, many things I can’t define
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints, the color of time

Who cares what games we choose
Little to win, but nothing to lose

Incense and peppermints, meaningless nouns
Turn on, tune in, turn your eyes around
Look at yourself, look at yourself, yeah, yeah
Look at yourself, look at yourself, yeah, yeah, yeah, no

To divide this cockeyed world in two
Throw your pride to one side, it’s the least you can do
Beatniks and politics, nothing is new
A yardstick for lunatics, one point of view

Who cares what games we choose
Little to win, but nothing to lose

Good sense, innocence, cripplin’ mankind
Dead kings, many things I can’t define
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints, the color of time

Who cares what games we choose
Little to win, but nothing to lose

Incense and peppermints
Incense and peppermints

Sha la la
Sha la la
Sha la la

Scents of the time:

(#9) Incense sticks

(#10) Peppermint soap

Incense and peppermints were happening in L.A. Meanwhile, up north, from Wikipedia:

The Summer of Love was a social phenomenon that occurred during the summer of 1967, when as many as 100,000 people, mostly young people sporting hippie fashions of dress and behavior, converged in San Francisco’s neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. Although hippies also gathered in many other places in the U.S., Canada and Europe, San Francisco was at that time the most publicized location for hippie subculture.

Hippies, sometimes called flower children, were an eclectic group. Many were suspicious of the government, rejected consumerist values, and generally opposed the Vietnam War. A few were interested in politics; others were concerned more with art (music, painting, poetry in particular) or spiritual and meditative practices.

… The media’s reportage of the “counterculture” included other events in California, such as the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in Marin County and the Monterey Pop Festival, both during June 1967. At Monterey, approximately 30,000 people gathered for the first day of the music festival, with the number increasing to 60,000 on the final day. Additionally, media coverage of the Monterey Pop Festival facilitated the Summer of Love as large numbers of hippies traveled to California to hear favorite bands such as The Who, Grateful Dead, the Animals, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, The Byrds, and Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin.

Musician John Phillips of the band The Mamas & the Papas wrote the song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” for his friend Scott McKenzie. It served to promote both the Monterey Pop Festival that Phillips was helping to organize, and to popularize the flower children of San Francisco. Released on May 13, 1967, the song was an instant success.

(#11) The 1967 song, with lyrics

But on the rhyming front…  From Wikipedia:

The pin–pen merger is a conditional merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ŋ]. The merged vowel is usually closer to [ɪ] than to [ɛ]. Examples of homophones resulting from the merger include pin–pen, kin–ken and him–hem. The merger is widespread in Southern American English, and is also found in many speakers in the Midland region immediately north of the South, and in areas settled by migrants from Oklahoma and Texas who settled in the Western United States during the Dust Bowl. It is also a characteristic of African American Vernacular English.

The pin–pen merger is one of the most widely recognized features of Southern speech. A study of the written responses of Civil War veterans from Tennessee, together with data from the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States and the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle South Atlantic States, show that the prevalence of the merger was very low up to 1860, but then rose steeply to 90% in the mid 20th century. Today there is very little variation throughout the Southern States in general, except that Savannah, Austin, Miami, and New Orleans are excluded from the merger. The area of consistent merger includes southern Virginia and most of the South Midland, and extends westward to include much of Texas. The northern limit of the merged area shows a number of irregular curves [map in the entry].

5 Responses to “Two cents, common sense, incense, and peppermints”

  1. julianne taaffe Says:

    God, your posts make me happy.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I was first made aware of the pin-pen merger when I attended a summer camp that drew much of its population (staff and campers both) from the Pittsburgh area, whence I deduce that its range extends as far north as western Pennsylvania.

    On a separate note, I now find myself wondering if “horse sense” derives from the idea that horses are particularly sensible creatures, or whether if refers to an ability to recognize the traits of horses without having to think very hard about them.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I didn’t include the map because I’m suspicious of it. The merger has certainly spread north in Ohio (to Columbus) and up the Ohio River Valley (to Pittsburgh).

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    I reported on this posting on ADS-L, noting that there was a section on “two cents” idioms, which might be of interest to the hounds of ADS-L. Quick response from Stephen Goranson today:

    A quick glance (easily antedated, my 2c) turned up Philadelphia Inquirer (price: one cent), Oct. 11, 1893, p. 7, col. 1:

    I suppose you will think I am going into ancient history for mentioning that article that you gave some time ago about “Man’s Complacency,” but I do feel like putting in my “two cents” to what has already been said.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Another ADS-L response, this time from Peter Reitan, also today (the 19th):

    I find an 1866 anecdote in a newspaper under the title, “Ten Cents’ Worth of Advice.” The Cecil Whig (Elkton, Maryland), January 20, 1866, page 4. In the story, someone ordered advice through mail-order and received a simple note about how to safely use a knife when whittling – “always whittle from you.”

    A similar anecdote later that same year about someone who ordered
    “twenty-five cents worth of advice.” St. Johnsbury Caledonian (Vermont), August 17, 1866, page 1. The response, “Take your cistern and well into the house on cold nights and keep up a good fire.”

    In 1872, an essay about the value of getting advice from books instead of from people. The problem with people, “They give us five cents worth of advice and expect us to serve them a life time. Books make no such demands.” Yorkville Enquirer (South Carolina), August 22, 1872, page 4.

    There are a few more similar references to cheap advice.

    The specific shorthand form of “two cents” or “two cents worth” to refer to advice given may be a regionalism from Pennsylvania. Stephen Goranson found an early example from Philadelphia in 1893. I found a slightly earlier example from Wilkes-Barre in June 1893, another from Philadelphia in 1895 and another from Mount Carmel 1899. I didn’t quickly run across other examples from elsewhere.

    “I have been reading, ‘How to be Happy Though Poor,’ in the News-Dealer of late, and of course, like all cranks, I though the discussion couldn’t be finished without me, so here goes my ‘two cents:’ Poverty has nothing to do with happiness. Neither has wealth.”

    Wilkes-Barre News, June 27, 1893, page 4.

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