Saturday, January 7, 2012

Penny Wise

Byter Enid sent me an email which included the following:

I was at the Men's Workshop at Bowden Brae yesterday and said that I had returned 'like a bad penny'. We then pondered the origins of this saying. Of course, Philip suggested that you were the right person to ask.

One wonders firstly what Enid was doing at the Men’s Workshop and secondly where Bowden Brae is, what the words mean and how it received that name.  Still, that is not the task in hand, which is bad pennies and how/why they return.

 “Come Watson, come!  The game is afoot! Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”
-       Sherlock Holmes, The Abbey Grange

The phrase “turn up like a bad penny” is also commonloy expressed as “return like a bad penny”.  The meaning is the same in both cases, the Oxford English Dictionary defining the general sense as being  “the predictable, and often unwanted, return of a disreputable or prodigal person after some absence, or (more generally) to the continual recurrence of someone or something.”   

With all resapect to Enid, a “bad penny” is therefore a person whose presence is unwelcome on any occasion, but who invariably and repeatedly appears (“turns up”), often at the worst possible times.   

In Merrie Olde England (and thereby transported to Oz) 12 pennies made one shilling and 20 shillings made one pound.  In the USofA the term “penny” refers to a one cent coin.  Today one cent is virtually valueless.  Australia ceased using one and two cent coins in 1992, rounding up or down in 5c increments.  The USofA, in keeping with driving on the wrong side of the road, eating with the wrong hand and retaining imperial measurements, has retained the one cent coin, notwithstanding that it costs 1.7 cents to make each such coin.  (As a disgression, in 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter disintegrated and crashed above the surface of Mars.  This was because the thrusters software had been written in metric units whereas the ground crew was entering course correction and thrusters data in imperial measurements.  The error has become known as the “Metric Mixup”).

A one cent coin was not, however, always valueless.  In olden days a penny was a valuable amount. 

Pennies first came to be used in England in the 8th century but the use of copper for pennies and twopennies did not occur untril 1797.  Before that they were made from silver..  From 1860 they were minted in bronze. 

Bear in mind that 18th century England was not the England of today.  Villages were isolated from each other and money was circulated generally within the village.  Travel was less commonplace than today, law enforcemernt was not as efficient and the times were generally more lawless.   

Imagine that you are the local butcher in the town in the 18th century and someone gives you a counterfeit penny.  Would you deliver it to the local Sheriff, who would most likely put it in his pocket?  Or would you pass it on in change asap or to quickly purchase something yourself?  Pennies were the most widely used coins and the greatest in circulation, so that counterfeiting those coins rather than the silver shillings made more sense.  Any person who received a dud penny would invariably pass it on quickly, hot potato, with the result that persons sometimes received them back at the end of the round robin.  Bad pennies circulated much more rapidly than good pennies and would keep turning up, unwanted. “Bad penny” thus became a phrase meaning “an unwanted thing that keeps showing up.” 

"Like a bad penny it returnd, to me again."
[1766 A. Adams in L. H. Butterfield et al. Adams Family Correspondence (1963) I. 55] 
"Just like as not he'll be coming back one of these days, when he's least wanted. A bad penny is sure to return.
[1884 R. H. Thorpe Fenton Family iii.] 
"Who's dead, when and what did he die of? Turn up like a bad penny."
[1922 Joyce Ulysses 149] 
‘I miss Bart.’ ‘Oh, a bad penny always turns up again.’
[1941 A. Updegraff Hills look Down vi.]
‘Stop worrying. The bad pennies always turn up.’ ‘Oh, Adrian, I don't think she's a bad penny, not really.’
[1979 G. Mitchell Mudflats of Dead iii.]

Which also leads me to a final observation.  In the days before decimal currency, before calculators and computers, the monetary system in Oz was pinds, shillings and pence.  Thus 2 pounds, 6 shilling and 4 pence as the price of something was expressed as 2 pounds six and four, and written as £2/6/4.  To make it even more complicated, there were also halfpennies, pronounced hape-pennies.  Twopence was pronoubed tuppence, threepence was pronounced thrip-pence (to rhyme with “skip”).

When we were at school we were given problems to solve such as:  John has £6/11/8 (spoken as “6 pounds, eleven and eight”).  He wants to buy something that costs £4/17/11½ (“4 pounds, seventeen and eleven pence halfpenny”, pronounced “hape-penny”.  How much change will he receive?  As I said, no calculators or computers, just paper and a pencil.   

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
-       Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
This quote has become so commonly used as a definition of the consequences of debt that it has entered the English language as “The Micawber Principle”.


  1. Hmmm .... hi Otto. One of the penny images was minted in 1951 which happens to be my year of birth. Does this make me Enid's bad penny ? All the best Philip.

  2. Hmmm .... hi Otto. One of the penny images was minted in 1951 which happens to be my year of birth. Does this make me Enid's bad penny ? All the best Philip.

  3. Only if you keep turning up when she doesn't want you.