“Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.” These words are from a song written 77 years ago by Americans Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston. Then, 35 years ago, the BBC ran a sit-com called, Pennies From Heaven.
Sadly, in another 35 years, many people won’t even know what a penny is. Last May, the Royal Canadian Mint ceased production of pennies. And on February 4, that same mint will stop distributing them.
The first penny was English and silver. An attempt to copy the Roman denarius, it was issued in the mid-eighth century. It took 240 pennies to equal a Saxon pound in weight.
This penny was eventually replaced by a copper coin and then by a bronze one. Not valued by actual weight since 1971, a British penny equals 1/100th of a pound. Canadian pennies (cents) are the hundredth part of a dollar. The first Canadian penny was minted in 1858.
The word’s ultimate origin is unknown. Some researchers cite the Latin, pendo (I weigh). But because the first pennies circulated in Saxon times, others suggest the word comes from the name, Penda, a Saxon king. We do know the immediate source of the word is Germanic — a form of der Pfennig, a pre-Euro German coin.
In countries such as Canada, which long ago adopted the decimal system, the correct name for this coin is cent even though it’s usually called penny. In French Canada, however, cent is the term always used. Cent is from the Latin, centum (one hundred).
It may seem absurd that the abbreviation for the British penny is the letter “d.” This d stands for denarius and commemorates the coin’s ancestry.
As our own penny fades into oblivion, many popular sayings will also fade away — or fail to make sense. So will some children’s songs. What child will know the cost of hot cross buns valued at, “One-a-penny, two-a-penny?” And when that pie-man orders Simple Simon to, “Show me first your penny,” who will understand?
Many very old English proverbs concern pennies. A penny for your thoughts, originated in the 16th century. In the 17th century, we got, A penny saved is a penny earned and Penny-wise and pound-foolish, as well as, In for a penny, in for a pound.
Other expressions are quite recent, for example, The penny drops, or, The penny’s dropped. Both mean, “belated understanding” — “I finally got it.” From the 1920s, the saying refers to the way slot machines cannot begin operating until the coin falls.
Spend a penny (to urinate) is also modern. It comes directly from the former cost of using a pay toilet.
Penny ante is U.S. poker jargon from the 1800s. An “ante” is the deposit allowing a player into the game. If the ante is a mere penny, it’s considered insignificant.
Penny loafers, shoes with slots for pennies, were first manufactured in 1936, but penny pinchers date back to the 1920s.
We’ll certainly survive the demise of the penny. We got over losing that 25-cent paper money — the shinplaster — didn’t we?