## A bit of nostalgia

What you see to the left is the reverse of a threepenny bit. Pron: ˈθrepəni or ˈθrʊpəni or ˈθrʌpəni, but the ə can be elided in all three versions. And yes it was (nearly) always called a bit, not a piece or coin. Its predecessor was a small round silver coin that was still legal tender when I was small. The twelve-sided copper/zinc/nickel alloy version you can see was introduced in the 1930s. The plant depicted is thrift. Later versions had a portcullis on the reverse instead.

Before 15 February 1971 the UK and most of the British Empire and Ireland had the most wonderfully confusing currency. The pound was divided into twenty shillings. The shilling was divided into twelve pence (ˈpens). Until 1960 the penny was divided into four farthings (ˈfɑːðɪŋ) The pound was symbolised £, as it still is. The origin of this is the Latin libra. The shilling was symbolised s, deriving from Latin solidus. The penny was symbolised d, from Latin denarius.

The coins available for most of my childhood wereː

• farthing = 1/4 of a penny
• halfpenny (ˈheɪpni) = 1/2 of a penny
• penny = 1/240th of a pound
• threepenny bit
• sixpence (ˈsɪkspəns)
• shilling = 1/20th of a pound
• two shillings aka florin
• half crown = 2s 6d = 1/8th of a pound

If you are not confused enough already, the colloquial terms for some of the denominations are:

• quid = pound
• bob = shilling
• tanner = sixpence

All this of course was expressly designed to drive foreigners mad and to torture school children by making them do currency arithmetic. Well, you try adding £4 3s 7d and £7 12s 9d. Not easy huh? Especially if you’re five or six years old.

The word pence is moribund these days. In my youth if it was part of a sum the pronunciation was pəns or pns, so fourpence, for instance, was ˈfɔːpəns. Apart from threepence (= ˈθre/ˈθrʊ/ˈθrʌpəns) there were a couple of other odd pronunciations involving pence. 2d was twopence or tuppence (= ˈtʌpəns). 5d was often ˈfaɪfpəns. 1½d was θriːˈheɪpəns.

Perhaps I had better not mention guineas. Oops

### 6 Responses to “A bit of nostalgia”

1. “Quid” means “euros”, of course, on this side of the Irish sea.

2. Marc Leavitt says:

Excellent explanation. As an American who majored in English, I got used to the British terminology including the slang terms, but I always assumed a guinea was another term for pound. Now that you’ve brought it up, I’ll go to Wikipedia to find out if I’m right.

3. Martin Ball says:

Even earlier there was the groat (=4d) and back further still, the noble (6/11 or six shillings and eleven pence).

It’s worth perhaps remembering that although Austria swapped the Schilling for the Euro, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania still use the Shilling as their unit of currency.

4. Martin Ball says:

Sorry – a noble was 6/8 (later 8/4)!

5. Paul Carley says:

Having a lot of /el es di:/ can make you feel quite gay!
How many youngsters would catch your meaning if you said that these days?

6. Graham says:

And how about “two and a kick” for two shillings and sixpence, or “half a dollar” from the days when there were 4 dollars to the pound?

In the early 1980s, when postage rates were much lower than now, I asked a Post Office counter clerk for some “tenpence ha’penny stamps” and he completely failed to understand me until I re-phrased it as “ten and a half pence”. He was middle aged, so his age couldn’t explain his lack of understanding.

And did you know that “groat” was once pronounced ‘grawt’ (-oa as in “broad”)?