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
See also Jack Windsor Lewis’s post on threepence.