21 November 2021

Pennies vs. pence

An excerpt from a letter to the editor in a recent issue of The American Philatelist:
"Before decimalization, the single word for multiple d coins was pennies, not pence.  Pence was only used in combination - sixpence, thruppence, and then usually only to designate the coin.  If you had a sixpence, you could buy six pennies' worth of sweets.  A stamp selling for 5d was called a five-penny stamp.  Pence as a standalone word only came into common use following decimalization. If you asked for a 5 pence stamp before, it would have sounded odd.  Now it is the norm.  I think even now, pence should be a plural noun with penny being the singular form.  "A pence" sounds very strange to me.  And any use of pence as an adjective seems odd, such as "shilling and pence stamps."


  1. They're called cents, people! Come on over the the decimal system!

  2. "A pence [penny] for your thoughts." Also sounds strange. The phrase dates from around 1535, "a time when the British penny was worth a significant sum. In 1535, Sir Thomas More wrote in A Treatyce upon the last thynges (‘Four Last Things’):

    In such wise yt not wtoute som note & reproch of suche vagaraunte mind, other folk sodainly say to them: a peny for your thought.

    A rough paraphrase of the above is “when people notice that someone appears disengaged and wish them to rejoin the conversation, they ask ‘a penny for your thoughts’.”


  3. I'm a bit of a numismatist and have some pre-decimalization British coins. The, well, pennies clearly say "One penny". I've also almost certainly shared this before but any mention of British currency reminds me of my favorite footnote from Gaiman and Pratchett's Good Omens: "Two farthings = One Ha'penny. Two ha'pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). Once Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

    The British resisted decimalized currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated.”

    1. Oi - thanks for the reminder!

    2. That is so base 3 (or maybe base six?) counting. We use base 10 because we have 10 fingers. Did the early British have only 3, or 6, fingers on each hand?

    3. It is based on the amount of divisors. Take one dozen for example. It is a common unit for distance (one foot), time (one half day), and amount (a dozen donuts). With something measured in base 12, you can easily calculate 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6, 1/12, 2/3, or 3/4. This allows for many different divisions that result in a whole number. If you follow the logic a bit more, base 60 (5 x 12) makes sense because you add even more divisors for a finer gradiation of a whole number part of the unit.

  4. Who asks for a 5 pence stamp? It's a 5p (said 5 pee) stamp.

    As for linguistic drift, when I was a child I was familiar with the phrase "daft apeth" (often directed at me), and presumed that it was something to do with apes. It's actually a contraction of "hapennyworth": https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/apeth

  5. Yes, it sounds complicated but they knew it by heart.
    The Imperial measurements we use are more complicated than metric, but it’s what I know, what I grew up with. When something is stated in kilometers or hectares or meters I have to convert it in my head to Imperial miles, acres, or feet to truly understand exactly what it is.
    That's why the resistance to decimalisation.


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