Dear Word Detective: When I was a boy, my father used many colorful phrases. He was from Texas, so that may explain it. My wife, from Idaho, had not heard of many of these. However, a friend from Massachusetts and I had both heard of “get off the dime.” Now we are wondering about its origins. It seems like it was not something my father just created. — Harry Plumlee.
And when I was a boy, you sent me this question. Actually, it was only three years ago, but it seems like sometime in the last century, which would have been only a little over nine years ago, come to think of it. Am I the only one around here still weirded out by this turn-of-the-century thing? In any case, every so often I go back through my reader mail in case I’ve missed a good question, which I clearly did, so here we are. Sorry for the delay, to put it mildly.
I’m happy to report that your father did not, in fact, invent the phrase “get off the dime,” so we don’t have to worry about how it ended up being heard in Massachusetts. “Get off the dime” has been around since at least the 1920s, and today it’s generally used to mean, as defined by the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, “to take action after a period of indecision or procrastination; to act” (“Congress [should] get off the dime and adopt the … budget proposal before it,” President Ronald Reagan, 1982).
According to Wikipedia (a phrase I always use with the trepidation of a man skydiving with a parachute he bought on eBay), the “dime,” in size the smallest coin in US currency, was first issued in 1796. The name “dime” comes from the Latin “decem,” meaning “ten,” a “dime” being worth one-tenth of a dollar, or ten cents (“cent” being rooted in “centum,” Latin for “one hundred”).
Since a dime is a small unit of money and fairly easily to come by, this small coin has played a much larger role in US slang than, for instance, the hundred-dollar bill. To “drop a dime on someone,” for instance, means to inform on them, usually by tipping off the police, and originated back in the 1960s when a call from a public telephone cost ten cents. “Dime” has also found a home in the slang of drug users, where a “dime” or “dime bag” has long meant ten dollars worth of a drug. The small size of a dime has also been used as a metaphor for “a small spot,” as in “stop on a dime” or “turn on a dime” when speaking of motor vehicles (or politicians).
“Get off the dime” dates back to the days of dance halls and “taxi dancers,” women employed by the halls to dance with strangers, usually for ten cents per dance (a grim occupation immortalized in the 1930 Rodgers and Hart song “Ten Cents a Dance”). A contemporary account, published in 1925, explains the phrase: “Sometimes a … [dancing] couple would … scarcely move from one spot. Then the floor manager would cry ‘Git off dat dime!'” Similarly, “dancing on the dime” meant to dance very closely with very little movement, behavior that might well attract the attention of the Vice Squad and get the hall closed. Thus “get off the dime” referred both to the the customer as the “dime” he had paid and to the small spot (“dime”) on the floor where the couple seemed frozen.