Monday, February 16, 2015

I’ve Got Sixpence

In the years that I lived in England while studying at the University of Birmingham, the British monetary system had not yet been decimalized. It took some getting used to, but after two years I was pretty adept at handling half-crowns, thrup’ny bits, florins, ten-bob notes, and guineas, along with pounds, shillings, and pence. By the time I visited the British Isles again, they had converted to the decimal system, in which one pound was equal to a hundred pennies, just like dollars and cents. I was greatly annoyed that once I had conquered the previous arcane system, the Brits got rid of it!

The pound, or pound sterling as it’s sometimes called, is still the basic unit of currency. The word comes from Latin libra pondo, which meant an amount equivalent in weight to a specified number of grains of wheat. Proto-Germanic punda became pund in Old English. It was used as a unit of money equivalent to that weight in silver; hence, the term “pound sterling.” By the 13th century it was determined that the pound would contain 240 pennies and a penny would be equal in weight to 32 grains of wheat.

The penny can be traced back to as early as the 8th century, when King Offa ordered coinage of money in the shape of a flat disc, known in Old English as a penig.  Its ultimate origin is probably the Old Norse pengar, which meant simply “money.” It is thought that the word may stem from the fact that the coin is shaped liked a pan.

Between the penny and the pound was a shilling. A word from Proto-Germanic skilliingoz, which came into Old High German as skilling, into Norse as skillingri, Dutch as schelling, German as Schilling, and Old Engllish as scilling. It consisted of a varying number of pence, standardized by the 14th century as twelve. Thus twenty shillings made a pound.

The ultimate source of the word is debatable, and may come from either of two Germanic words: skell  (“ring or resound”) or skel (“cut”). The ending –ing is a Germanic form meaning “fractional part.” The –ing is seen also in farthing, a coin no longer in circulation that was worth one-fourth (Old English feorða) of a penny.

In addition to pounds, shillings, and pence, British monetary policy sometimes referred to a half-crown. It was the value of two-and-a-half shillings, or 2 shillings and sixpence. There was a silver coin called a crown (because it bore the emblem of the royal headpiece) minted until 1965, but it was rarely in actual circulation because of its large size.

Pre-decimal coins in circulation in addition to the shilling were the florin (worth two shillings), so-called from a European coin of similar size that was named from the Latin floremi (“flower”) because early Italian versions were imprinted with a lily; a sixpence coin; and a three-penny coin known as a thrup’ny bit.

I used to hear some prices quoted, not in pounds, but in guineas. A guinea was a coin made of about one-fourth ounce of gold; it was minted between 1663 and 1814. At first it was worth the same as a pound, twenty shillings, but increases in the price of gold upped it to as high as thirty shillings, until 1816, when it was standardized at twenty-one shillings. The name came from the Guinea region of West Africa, source of most of the gold. Although it no longer existed as a unit of currency by the 1950s, it was still used to quote prices of expensive luxury goods, in order to make them seem less expensive. A tag of 299 guineas seems less than its equivalent value of £314.

All this talk of money upsets the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who practices his craft for the sheer love of the art, not for any tawdry monetary reward (which he has tried repeatedly to obtain, but without any luck).

            For less than a guinea
            You’ll get twenty blini
            And then if you’d like to have fillings,
            Like mushrooms and ham,
            Or whipped cream and jam,
            Then throw in a couple more shillings.

            While some think it’s nice
            To add a big slice
            Of whitefish or salmon or sturgeon,
            It’s better by far
            With fine caviar,
            So hope that your sturgeon’s a virgin.

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