Money in fractions

As news today reveals that the British government recently considered dropping the 1p and 2p coins from circulation, I am reminded that I grew up in a world where money came in half pennies as well as pennies. I narrowly missed having to calculate in farthings (quarters of a penny) in the real world but they featured in my ageing primary school textbooks.

Money, pre-decimalisation in February 1971, was far more mathematically challenging. There were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. This was a system Britain had happily used for centuries, based on the Roman innovation of dividing a pound (librum) of silver into 240 denarii, (This is where the “d” comes from in the “lsd” abbreviation for the old money: librum, solidus, denarius.) On a practical level, however, with all those 12s, you soon ran out of fingers to count on.

The sixpence (one-fortieth of a pound) was finally taken out of circulation in 1980. The halfpenny disappeared in 1984, thus removing the usefulness of the phrase “you daft ha’peth” forever. (Although you still sometimes hear people described as “not the full shilling” despite the fact that we don’t have shillings any more, either.)

The British, despite this linguistic loss, welcomed the ever-onward process to make mental arithmetic just that bit easier with the abolition of the fraction element.

The purchasing power of the halfpenny was tiny, and it cost more to produce than it was worth. You’d have been better off melting it down for its metal. It was also tiny in size, and prone to falling down the back of the sofa.

If Britain does discontinue the penny, it won’t be alone. Canada dispensed with its penny coin in 2013 and the Irish abandoned their small change in 2015.

The governor of the Bank of England thinks it would be a good idea to get rid of pennies (all 11 billion of them) but then what would we do with yet more phrases rendered linguistically obsolete? Penny pinching. Waiting for the penny to drop. To spend a penny. Cost a pretty penny. Count the pennies. Cut off without a penny. Penny wise, pound foolish.

The loss of the penny will have far-more etymological consequences than the disappearance of the fractions and the florins ever did.

A penny for your thoughts.


A farthing, found at the back of a cupboard…



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