In a word

Penny

 

Recently I noticed a hole in a pocket of an older and so precious pair of jeans. Over time I realised this was very useful. It meant I was soon trailing one cent coins, and only one cent coins, wherever I went. The hole, I discovered, had a silver lining, so to speak. It rid me of those troublesome, useless coins, effortlessly.

Nowadays we’ve taken to calling the one cent coin, a penny. The word usually designates a coin of the smallest denomination. It is derived from the Old English pening, penig, penning, and pending, Middle English’s peni, Northumbrian penning. Before those there was the Old Norse penningr, Swedish pänning, Danish penge, Old Frisian panning, Old Saxon pending, Dutch penning, Old High German pfenning, German pfennig.

In these islands the penny can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the 7th century in England where they had small, thick silver coins known as aspaeingas or denarii, now often referred to as sceattas by coin collectors.

Around 785 AD, King Offa of Mercia in England introduced penny coin made of silver and which were similar in size and weight to the continental deniers of the period, and to the Anglo-Saxon sceattas which had gone before it and which, it’s believed, were probably also called pence. It remained the principal denomination, with some minor changes, until the 14th century.

Silver pennies were the currency used to pay the Vikings what was essentially protection money and such was the amount handed over that more Anglo-Saxon pennies from the decades around the first millennium have been found in Denmark than in England.

Producing, handling and counting penny coins today can mean incurring costs which are much higher than a penny. So there have been moves to get rid of it in many countries. Australia and New Zealand have adopted 5¢ and 10¢ coins, respectively, as their lowest denomination, followed by Canada which adopted 5¢ as its lowest denomination in 2012.

Here a one cent coin costs 1.7 cent to produce. The cent does not make sense. Last year in Wexford town they undertook a happy experiment to rid themselves of the coin with no ill-consequences. Transactions in 250 of the town’s retailers were rounded up or down to the nearest five cent. Despite which we are still stuck with the cent. Still, there is the hole in my jeans’ pocket.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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