Posted by: Jack Henry | June 7, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Drop a Dime

You know me—well, many of you do through Editor’s Corner—I love detective novels and police procedurals, particularly of the Law and Order variety. Thursday nights this year have been fabulous: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order (the original), and Organized Crime—three for the price of one! Today we’re going to look at the phrase “drop a dime on” meaning to rat someone out, snitch on someone, or inform on a criminal by calling the police.

The following description is from our buddies at the Grammarist.

Drop a dime is an idiom with an evolving definition.

The original meaning of drop a dime is to secretly report a lawbreaker to the police, to snitch on a fellow criminal, to anonymously betray a criminal partner. The term drop a dime first appeared in detective novels in the 1920s-1930s. The idiom drop a dime conjures the image of someone putting a dime in a payphone to call the police and betray or “rat out” a criminal.

Informants used payphones because short phone calls could not be traced, especially without prior warning of the incoming phone call. Even though payphones have passed out of usage, this meaning of the idiom does not seem to have waned….

Interestingly, the term drop a dime has also evolved into an American basketball term, dropping dimes, which means giving an assist on a play. Also, the expression is increasingly seen in American football to mean to throw a pass accurately.

Remember, snitches get stitches! (And good luck trying to find a pay phone. I just saw some tourists in Mexico taking a photo of a pay phone because it was so “quaint.”)

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her

Technical Editor, Advisory

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