Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1981’

Drop A Dime

Posted by Admin on March 20, 2021

The other night, while watching a relatively recent detective series episode on television, the expression drop a dime was used. The expression means to report a criminal to the authorities (otherwise known as ratting someone out to the cops) but in this day and age of technology, what do dimes have to do with reporting crimes and criminals?

The idiom drop a dime refers to assisting law enforcement in an investigation by placing a usually anonymous phone call to share helpful information about a criminal or a crime being investigated. Even though payphones are now so rarely seen that many younger people have little to no idea what a payphone looks like (and much less how to operate one), the expression persists.

On 23 January 2017, 49-year-old Toronto native and very popular hairstylist Fabio Sementilli was found dead at his home in Woodland Hills (CA) by his daughter. Accused were his widow, Monica Crescentini and her then-boyfriend Robert Louis Baker as well as an unnamed third party, Toronto Sun reporter Brad Hunter informed readers back in 2019 of the situation by writing this:

With the death penalty off the table, neither the suspected black widow nor her beau has any incentive to drop a dime on the mystery man.

But it wasn’t just Canadian reporters who used the expression in news articles in 2019. Reporter Ed Kilgore of The Intelligencer also used the expression when reporting on how impeaching then-President Donald Trump could prove Joe Biden’s undoing by way of uncovering whether Hunter Biden benefited from his father’s assistance in carving out a career as a lawyer-lobbyist, and as Ed Kilgore described him “a procurer of appropriations earmarks, and an international man of mystery.”

That coupled with the history of substance abuse and allegations against him regarding his former wife and his brother’s widow, certainly created a difficult situation for Joe Biden’s campaign. In the news story, Ed Kilgore wrote:

Team Trump wants it to stay that way, which is precisely why Trump and his goon, Rudy Giuliani, were trying to drop a dime on Hunter Biden and smear Joe in the bargain.

In the 1995 Spike Lee movie “Clockers” based on the novel by the same name written by Richard Price told the story of street-level drug dealers. Such dealers were referred to as clockers. It isn’t long in the movie before one of the lead clockers arranges to have a rival clocker knocked off and as you can guess, the rival is murdered. The following dialogue happens at the 26-minute mark in the movie:

We got a crowd of black, white customers, out-of-state license plates, what have you. Somebody gonna check that out. They gonna drop a dime on me, call 911. With my jacket, I can’t go back to jail.

While there’s a whole history behind the use of the word jacket, that will be addressed sooner rather than later on this blog. But let’s continue with uncovering the origins of dropping a dime.

Back in the day, a dime pushed into the coin slot (which landed in the coin deposit box inside) of a payphone allowed the user to make a local phone call. When the coin dropped into the coin box inside the payphone, only then could a phone call be placed. Since cellphones weren’t around yet, and people ratting out people and their potentially criminal activities to law enforcement was something most people didn’t want to have traced back to them, using a payphone guaranteed a fair bit of anonymity to the caller.

With anonymity in play, people were more inclined to place phone calls to the police by way of a payphone to inform on specific people and activities that might be of interest to the police. It’s easy to see how this activity came to be known as dropping a dime on someone – it was quick, inexpensive, and effective.

On 1 October 1976, confessed Mafia hit man Ira Pecznick co-wrote a book, with help from Paul Hoffman, titled, “To Drop a Dime: The Mafia Hit Man’s Uncensored Story.” The book allegedly detailed the criminal activities of the New Jersey Campisi family.  Ira Pecznick turned State witness against the Campisi family, and his testimony sent many of the family to prison.

In 1951, the coin charge across the U.S. of a nickel per call rose to a dime. That being said, some payphones required a dime to make a call as early as 1949.  But by 1951, in major cities across America, people could count on needing a dime to place a call from a payphone.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: When the Bell System faced competition in the telecommunications industry in 1981 due in large part to deregulation, the nationwide pricing policy for payphones rose to a quarter per call.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Back when payphones (then known as phone booths) finally became popular in general, those payphone calls cost two cents.  In the early 1930s, new shoes called loafers (or Weeguns, depending on where a person lived in the US) were the rage and there was just enough space in each shoe for a penny to fit snugly but not uncomfortably. People wearing loafers began keeping a penny in each shoe should the need arise to make an emergency phone call, and in time, this is how the pennyloafer got its name.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: American inventor William Gray was granted a patent on 13 August 1889 for his device that allowed people to deposit coins so they could place a telephone call. Soon afterwards, he established the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company but the concept didn’t catch on quite as quickly as he had hoped.

By 1911, however, in collaboration with Western Electric (which was AT&T’s manufacturing division), the updated payphone was being installed in cities across America, and anywhere it was likely someone would want or need to place a phone call.

Getting back to the matter at hand, hard-boiled detective stories by authors such as Raymond Chandler (23 July 1888 – 26 March 1959) and Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane (9 March 1918 – 17 July 2006) started to include the idiom in their stories to refer to a snitch (a police informant) and even though the cost of phone calls kept increasing over the decades to a quarter then two quarters than a dollar (payphones in Canada accepted dollar coins known as loonies), the meaning attributed to dropping a dime never changed.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Many of the future well-known authors of detective stories who wrote detective stories in the 1930s and 1940s regularly saw their stories published in the detective pulp fiction magazine “Dime Detective” whose first issue was published in November 1931. The last issue was published in August 1953. The magazine enjoyed a run of 274 issues published. There were British reprints under the name of “Red Dime Detective” and “Yankee Detective Fiction.”

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 3: The first dime-novel detective appeared in a story published in 1872 in “The Fireside Companion” story paper and written by American author and medical doctor, Harry Enton (1854 – 28 March 1927).  A year later, a new ten-cent format that was 9 inches by 13 inches, with only 32 pages and a black-and-white illustration, was launched, and these were referred to as ‘weekly libraries.’ Of all the titles available, it was the “New York Detective Library” by Frank Tousey (24 May 1853 – 7 September 1902) that was among the most successful titles.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 4: At the time, the English equivalent of the dime novel was the shilling shocker or the penny dreadful.

 

In light of the dime detectives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s easy to see how the connection between detectives, law enforcement, payphones and dimes came together. Because Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to dropping a dime than the detectives stories of the 1950s — even with a great deal of earlier dime and detective history leading up to the 1950s — the idiom to drop a dime is pegged to 1951  — the cost of an anonymous payphone call to the police was a dime in major cities across America, and people were apt to assist the police with a little unexpected extra information on a possible crime or criminal.

As an added suggestion, Idiomation reminds readers that the expression to drop a dime should not be confused with to drop a penny which, of course, means something completely different, and that will be a future idiom that will be published here at some point. Idiomation should probably also research where and when the expression dime store hood as well.

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