What Does Pennies From Heaven Mean?

Pennies from heaven: The expression sure sounds poetic, doesn’t it? But do you know what the phrase means? Read on for the figurative definition of this popular idiom, and to learn why some people use it more literally to indicate an act of spiritual significance.

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What Does Pennies From Heaven Mean?

As an idiom, pennies from heaven means unexpected good luck or good fortune; indeed, it’s often used to indicate a benefit that is financial in nature. Typically, the expression is used to describe an advantage that in addition to being unanticipated is also greatly needed and thus extremely appreciated. What’s more, it usually describes a benefit one didn’t have to do any work for or otherwise make an effort to acquire.

Here are several example sentences using pennies from heaven:

  • I wasn’t expecting a tax refund this year but am so thankful for the pennies from heaven. 
  • The new CEO turned out to be like pennies from heaven for the struggling company. 
  • In last place in their division, the baseball team needed some pennies from heaven, which they got in the recently traded shortstop. 
  • I couldn’t believe the pennies from heaven that came in the mail today: My grandma sent me a check for $100 out of the blue to use for gas and groceries.

Origins of the Phrase Pennies From Heaven and Its Place in Pop Culture

The expression gained popularity in 1936 with the release of the film Pennies From Heaven starring Bing Crosby (as Larry Poole), Edith Fellows (as Patsy Smith), Madge Evans (as Susan Sprague), Donald Meek (as Gramp Smith), and Louis Armstrong (as Henry), and produced by Emanuel Cohen with a screenplay by Jo Swerling and direction by Norman Z. McLeod. It contains many musical numbers and features a song by the same name, with music by Arthur Johnston and lyrics by Johnny Burke. Burke and Johnston were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. A sampling of the lyrics:

That’s what storms were made for
And you shouldn’t be afraid for
Every time it rains it rains
Pennies from heaven
Don’t you know each cloud contains
Pennies from heaven
You’ll find your fortune falling
All over town
Be sure that your umbrella is upside down
Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers

However, the phrase had been used before the film premiered. Indeed, it can be found in print in a California newspaper article from earlier that year and even earlier, in the 1928 book The Ghetto Messenger by Abraham Burstein.

After the release of the movie, artists such as Billie Holiday and Doris Day, along with countless other singers, performed the song. The July 24, 1936, recording by Bing Crosby and the Georgie Stoll Orchestra was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004. Frank Sinatra also recorded a version of the song. 

In 1981, Hollywood released a movie musical titled Pennies From Heaven starring Steve Martin as Arthur Parker, a Great Depression-era married sheet music salesman who falls in love with a schoolteacher played by Bernadette Peters; his wife is played by Jessica Harper. In one scene, Martin imagines himself as Fred Astaire. Parker and the schoolteacher have a short love affair. The movie was directed by Herbert Ross, with a screenplay by Dennis Potter.

Understanding Idioms

An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. As you’ve already discovered, these words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning: They don’t mean what they appear to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

In the case of pennies from heaven, the expression isn’t used literally to describe pennies falling out of the sky or raining down from heaven above. Well, at least not typically; see below. Rather, it’s used to describe unexpected good luck, financial or otherwise. While thinking of the expression literally might help you arrive at some understanding of its figurative meaning, you really simply need to know the figurative definition to understand this idiom.

Discover the meanings of many more idioms here.

Its Meaning In the Spiritual World

Many people in the spiritual world believe that when you find a penny or dime unexpectedly, it’s a sign of a deceased loved one, spirit guide, or angel; it’s their way of communicating with you and sending you a message. They often believe the date of the coin will reveal its significance. For example, you may find a penny on the ground when you open your car door that’s from 1940, the year your mother was born. Thus, in spiritual contexts, you often see the expression pennies from heaven or the version dimes from heaven.  

Other Penny Idioms

There are a great deal of other idiomatic expressions using financial terminology or relating to money in general, such as money talks, but also about pennies in particular. For example:

  • A penny for your thoughts: Use this phrase when you want to discover what someone else is thinking.
  • A pretty penny/Cost a pretty penny: Use these expressions to indicate a large amount of money was spent or is required.
  • Bright as a new penny: This idiom describes someone who is quick-witted and intelligent. 
  • A bad penny: Use this phrase to describe someone you perceive to have little or no value.
  • Pinch pennies: When someone is pinching pennies, they’re being frugal or thrifty and saving up their money. 

Synonyms for Pennies From Heaven

If you’re looking for a word or phrase to use in place of pennies from heaven when you’re speaking or writing, you have a few choices. Consider the following synonyms and near synonyms (with a close, but not necessarily exact, meaning):

  • Windfall 
  • Bonus
  • Blessing 
  • Jackpot
  • Bonanza
  • Profit
  • Handout
  • Perk
  • Dividend
  • Fortune
  • Luck
  • Stroke of luck
  • Lucky find
  • Godsend
  • Gift from the gods

Summary

The idiom pennies from heaven is an expression that describes surprising good fortune. Often, it is used to indicate unexpected financial gain, although it can be used to describe any type of good luck. Because the benefit is unanticipated, effort didn’t have to be put forth to achieve it. In the spiritual world it is used more literally; some people believe that angels and spirits communicate by leaving pennies, and often dimes, for loved ones, and they call these pennies from heaven or dimes from heaven.

PS: Find a Scrabble Cheat Sheet of words, like pennies, that start with the letter P here.