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Offa king of Mercia 757 793 silver penny.jpg
South Africa-Penny-1929.jpg
US One Cent Obv.png
From top to bottom: a penny depicting King Offa of Mercia; a 1929 South African penny; a 2013 one-cent coin from the United States (colloquially called a penny).

A penny is a coin (pl.pennies) or a unit of currency (pl.pence) in various countries. Borrowed from the Carolingian denarius (hence its former abbreviation d.), it is usually the smallest denomination within a currency system. Presently, it is the formal name of the British penny (abbr. p) and the de facto name of the American one-cent coin (abbr. ¢) as well as the informal Irish designation of the 1 cent euro coin (abbr. c). It is the informal name of the cent unit of account in Canada, although one-cent coins are no longer minted there. [1] The name is also used in reference to various historical currencies also derived from the Carolingian system, such as the French denier and the German pfennig. It may also be informally used to refer to any similar smallest-denomination coin, such as the euro cent or Chinese fen.


The Carolingian penny was originally a 0.940-fine silver coin weighing 1240 pound. It was adopted by Offa of Mercia and other English kings and remained the principal currency in Europe over the next few centuries until repeated debasements necessitated the development of more valuable coins. The British penny remained a silver coin until the expense of the Napoleonic Wars prompted the use of base metals in 1797. Despite the decimalization of currencies in the United States and, later, throughout the British Commonwealth, the name remains in informal use.

No penny is currently formally subdivided, although farthings (¼d), halfpennies, and half cents have previously been minted and the mill (1/10¢) remains in use as a unit of account in some contexts.


Silver 1930 Australia penny.jpg
Coin of Eric Bloodaxe Norse king of York 952 954.jpg
A silver copy of the 1930 Australian penny (top), coin of Eric Bloodaxe (bottom), with legend reading Eric Rex ("King Eric")

Penny is first attested in a 1394 Scots text, [n 1] a variant of Old English peni, a development of numerous variations including pennig, penning, and pending. [n 2] The etymology of the term "penny" is uncertain, although cognates are common across almost all Germanic languages [n 3] and suggest a base *pan-, *pann-, or *pand- with the individualizing suffix -ing. Common suggestions include that it was originally *panding as a Low Franconian form of Old High German pfant "pawn" (in the sense of a pledge or debt, as in a pawnbroker putting up collateral as a pledge for repayment of loans); *panning as a form of the West Germanic word for "frying pan", presumably owing to its shape; and *ponding as a very early borrowing of Latin pondus ("pound"). [3] Recently, it has been proposed that it may represent an early borrowing of Punic pn (Pane or Pene, "Face"), as the face of Carthaginian goddess Tanit was represented on nearly all Carthaginian currency. [4] Following decimalization, the British and Irish coins were marked "new penny" until 1982 and 1985, respectively.

From the 16th century, the regular plural pennies fell out of use in England when referring to a sum of money (e.g. "That costs tenpence."), but continued to be used to refer to more than one penny coin ("Here you are, a sixpence and four pennies."). It remains common in Scottish English and is standard for all senses in American English, [3] where, however, the informal "penny" is typically only used of the coins in any case, values being expressed in "cents". [5] The informal name for the American cent seems to have spread from New York State. [6]

In British English, prior to decimalization, values from two to eleven pence and to a lesser extent 18 pence, were often written and spoken as a single word, as twopence or tuppence, threepence or thruppence, etc. (Other values were usually expressed in terms of shillings and pence or written as two words, which might or might not be hyphenated.) Where a single coin represented a number of pence, it was treated as a single noun, as a sixpence. Thus, "a threepence" (but more usually "a threepenny bit") would be single coin of that value whereas "three pence" would be its value and "three pennies" would be three penny coins. In British English, divisions of a penny were added to such combinations without a conjunction, as sixpence-farthing, and such constructions were also treated as single nouns. Adjectival use of such coins used the ending -penny, as sixpenny. [3]

The British abbreviation d. derived from the Latin denarius . It followed the amount, e.g. "11d". It has been replaced since decimalization by p, usually written without a space or period. From this abbreviation, it is common to speak of pennies and values in pence as "p". [3] In North America, it is common to abbreviate cents with the currency symbol ¢ . Elsewhere, it is usually written with a simple c.



The medieval silver penny was modeled on similar coins in antiquity, such as the Greek drachma, the Carthaginian shekel, and the Roman denarius. Forms of these seem to have reached as far as Norway and Sweden.[ citation needed ] The use of Roman currency in Britain seems to have fallen off after the Roman withdrawal and subsequent Saxon invasions.

Frankish Empire

Charlemagne's father Pepin the Short instituted a major currency reform around AD 755, [7] aiming to reorganise Francia's previous silver standard with a standardized .940-fine denier (Latin : denarius ) weighing 1240 pound. [8] (As the Carolingian pound seems to have been about 489.5  grams, [9] [10] each penny weighted about 2  grams.) Around 790, Charlemagne introduced a new .950 or .960-fine penny with a smaller diameter. Surviving specimens have an average weight of 1.70 grams, although some estimate the original ideal[ clarification needed ] mass at 1.76 grams. [11] [12] [13] But despite the purity and quality of these pennies, they were often rejected by traders throughout the Carolingian period in favor of the gold coins used elsewhere; this led to repeated legislation against such refusal to accept the king's currency. [14]


Coin of AEthelred the Unready.jpg Aethelred rev2.jpg
O: Draped bust of Aethelred left. +ÆĐELRED REX ANGLOR[UM] R: Long cross. +EADǷOLD MO CÆNT
Anglo-Saxon silver "Long Cross" penny of Aethelred II, moneyer Eadwold, Canterbury, c.997–1003. The cross made cutting the coin into half-pennies or farthings (quarter-pennies) easier. (Note spelling Eadƿold in inscription, using Anglo-Saxon letter wynn in place of modern w.)

Some of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms initially copied the solidus, the late Roman gold coin; at the time, however, gold was so rare and valuable that even the smallest coins had such a great value that they could only be used in very large transactions and were sometimes not available at all. Around 641–670, there seems to have been a movement to use coins with a lower gold content. This decreased their value and may have increased the number that could be minted, but these paler coins do not seem to have solved the problem of the value and scarcity of the currency. The miscellaneous silver sceattas minted in Frisia and Anglo-Saxon England after around 680 were probably known as "pennies" at the time. (The misnomer is based on a probable misreading of the Anglo-Saxon legal codes.) [15] Their purity varied and their weight fluctuated from about 0.8 to about 1.3 grams. They continued to be minted in East Anglia under Beonna and in Northumbria as late as the mid-9th century.

The first Carolingian-style pennies were introduced by King Offa of Mercia (r. 757–796), modeled on Pepin's system. His first series was 1240 of the Saxon pound of 5400 grains (350 grams), giving a pennyweight of about 1.46 grams. His queen Cynethryth also minted these coins under her own name. [16] Near the end of his reign, Offa minted his coins in imitation of Charlemagne's reformed pennies. Offa's coins were imitated by East Anglia, Kent, Wessex and Northumbria, as well as by two Archbishops of Canterbury. [16] As in the Frankish Empire, [8] all these pennies were notionally fractions of shillings ( solidi ; sol ) and pounds ( librae ; livres ) but during this period neither larger unit was minted. Instead, they functioned only as notional units of account. [17] (For instance, a "shilling" or "solidus" of grain was a measure equivalent to the amount of grain that 12 pennies could purchase.) [18] English currency was notionally .925-fine sterling silver at the time of Henry II, but the weight and value of the silver penny steadily declined from 1300 onwards.

In 1257, Henry III minted a gold penny which had the nominal value of 1 shilling 8 pence (i.e. 20 d.). At first, the coin proved unpopular because it was overvalued for its weight; by 1265 it was so undervalued—the bullion value of its gold being worth 2 shillings (i.e. 24 d.) by then—that the coins still in circulation were almost entirely melted down for the value of their gold. Only eight gold pennies are known to survive. [19] It was not until the reign of Edward III that the florin and noble established a common gold currency in England.

A worn medieval penny, probably dating from the reigns of Henry VI-VII, AD 1413-1461 Medieval coin, Penny of Henry V -VI (FindID 505636).jpg
A worn medieval penny, probably dating from the reigns of Henry VI–VII, AD 1413–1461

The earliest halfpenny and farthingd.) found date from the reign of Henry III. The need for small change was also sometimes met by simply cutting a full penny into halves or quarters. In 1527, Henry VIII abolished the Tower pound of 5400 grains, replacing it with the Troy pound of 5760 grains (making a penny 5760/240 = 24 grains) and establishing a new pennyweight of 1.56 grams, although, confusingly, the penny coin by then weighed about 8 grains, and had never weighed as much as this 24 grains. The last silver pence for general circulation were minted during the reign of Charles II around 1660. Since then, they have only been coined for issue as Maundy money, royal alms given to the elderly on Maundy Thursday.

United Kingdom

Throughout the 18th century, the British government did not mint pennies for general circulation and the bullion value of the existing silver pennies caused them to be withdrawn from circulation. Merchants and mining companies—such as Anglesey's Parys Mining Co.—began to issue their own copper tokens to fill the need for small change. [20] Finally, amid the Napoleonic Wars, the government authorized Matthew Boulton to mint copper pennies and twopences at Soho Mint in Birmingham in 1797. [21] Typically, 1 lb. of copper produced 24 pennies. In 1860, the copper penny was replaced with a bronze one (95% copper, 4% tin, 1% zinc). Each pound of bronze was coined into 48 pennies. [22]

United States

The United States' cent—popularly known as the "penny" since the early 19th century [6] —began with the unpopular copper chain cent in 1793. [23] Abraham Lincoln was the first historical figure to appear on a U.S. coin when he was portrayed on the one-cent coin to commemorate his 100th birthday. [24]

South Africa

The penny that was brought to the Cape Colony (in what is now South Africa) was a large coin—36 mm in diameter, 3.3 mm thick and 1 oz (28 g)—and the twopence was correspondingly larger at 41 mm in diameter, 5 mm thick and 2 oz (57 g). On them was Britannia with a trident in her hand. The English called this coin the Cartwheel penny due to its large size and raised rim, [25] but the Capetonians referred to it as the Devil's Penny as they assumed that only the Devil used a trident. [26] The coins were very unpopular due to their large weight and size. [27] On 6 June 1825, Lord Charles Somerset, the governor, issued a proclamation that only British Sterling would be legal tender in the Cape Colony (colonial South Africa). The new British coins (which were introduced in England in 1816), among them being the shilling, six-pence of silver, the penny, half-penny, and quarter-penny in copper, were introduced to the Cape. Later two-shilling, four-penny, and three-penny coins were added to the coinage. The size and denomination of the 1816 British coins, with the exception of the four-penny coins, were used in South Africa until 1960. [26]


Handling and counting penny coins entail transaction costs that may be higher than a penny. It has been claimed that, for micropayments, the mental arithmetic costs more than the penny. Changes in the market prices of metals, combined with currency inflation, has caused the metal value of penny coins to exceed their face value. [28] [29]

Australia and New Zealand adopted 5¢ and 10¢, respectively, as their lowest coin denomination, [30] followed by Canada, which adopted 5¢ as its lowest denomination in 2012. [31] Several nations have stopped minting equivalent value coins, and efforts have been made to end the routine use of pennies in several countries, including the United States. [32] In the UK, since 1992, one- and two-penny coins have been made from copper-plated steel (making them magnetic) instead of bronze.

List of pennies

See also


  1. "He sal haf a penny til his noynsankys..." [2]
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary notes two families of variants, one comprising pæning, pending, peninc, penincg, pening, peningc, and Northumbrian penning and the other peneg, pennig, pænig, penig, penug, pæni, and peni, the later of which gave rise to the modern form. [3]
  3. Germanic cognates of penny include Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Old Saxon penning and German: Pfennig in reference to the coin and Icelandic: peningur, Swedish pengar, and Danish: penge in reference to "money". Gothic, however, has 𐍃𐌺𐌰𐍄𐍄𐍃 (skatts) for the occurrence of "denarius" (Greek: δηνάριος, dēnários) in the New Testament. [3]
  4. This may be the source or a development of the "See a pin and pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck" recorded in a mid-19th century edition of Mother Goose . [33]

Related Research Articles

Denarius Ancient Roman coin

The denarius was the standard Roman silver coin from its introduction in the Second Punic War c. 211 BC to the reign of Gordian III, when it was gradually replaced by the Antoninianus. It continued to be minted in very small quantities, likely for ceremonial purposes, until and through the tetrarchy (293–313).

Coins of the pound sterling British current and historic coinage

The standard circulating coinage of the United Kingdom, British Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories is denominated in pounds sterling, and, since the introduction of the two-pound coin in 1994, ranges in value from one penny to two pounds. Since decimalisation, on 15 February 1971, the pound has been divided into 100 (new) pence. Before decimalisation, twelve pence made a shilling, and twenty shillings made a pound. British coins are minted by the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. The Royal Mint also commissions the coins' designs. As of 14 October 2019, there were an estimated 29 billion coins circulating in the United Kingdom.

Shilling Unit of currency formerly used in the United Kingdom, Australia, and other British Commonwealth countries, as well as much of the British Empire

The shilling is an historical coin, and the name of a unit of modern currencies formerly used in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other British Commonwealth countries.

Troy weight System of units of mass

Troy weight is a system of units of mass that originated in 15th-century England, and is primarily used in the precious metals industry. The Troy weights are the grain, the pennyweight, the troy ounce, and the troy pound. The troy grain is equal to the grain-unit of the avoirdupois system, yet the troy ounce is heavier than the avoirdupois ounce, and the troy pound is lighter than the avoirdupois pound.

Penny (English coin) Coin introduced in England c. 785

The English penny, originally a coin of 1.3 to 1.5 grams pure silver, was introduced c. 785 by King Offa of Mercia. These coins were similar in size and weight to the continental deniers of the period and to the Anglo-Saxon sceats which had preceded it.

Pound sterling Official currency of the United Kingdom and other territories

The pound sterling, known in some contexts simply as the pound or sterling, is the official currency of the United Kingdom, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the British Antarctic Territory, and Tristan da Cunha. It is subdivided into 100 pence. The "pound sterling" is the oldest currency in continuous use. Some nations that do not use sterling also have currencies called the pound.

Solidus (coin)

The solidus, nomisma, or bezant was originally a relatively pure gold coin issued in the Late Roman Empire. Under Constantine, who introduced it on a wide scale, it had a weight of about 4.5 grams. It was largely replaced in Western Europe by Pepin the Short's currency reform, which introduced the silver-based pound/shilling/penny system. In Eastern Europe, the nomisma was gradually debased by the Byzantine emperors until it was abolished by Alexius I in 1092, who replaced it with the hyperpyron, which also came to be known as a "bezant". The Byzantine solidus also inspired the originally slightly less pure dinar issued by the Muslim Caliphate.

£sd Pre-decimal currency system of the pound, shilling, and penny

£sd is the popular name for the pre-decimal currencies once common throughout Europe, especially in the British Isles and hence in several countries of the British Empire and subsequently the Commonwealth. The abbreviation originates from the Latin currency denominations librae, solidi, and denarii. In the United Kingdom, these were referred to as pounds, shillings, and pence.

Pfennig 9th century – 2002 German coin or note

The pfennig or penny is a former German coin or note, which was the official currency from the 9th century until the introduction of the euro in 2002. While a valuable coin during the Middle Ages, it lost its value through the years and was the minor coin of the Mark currencies in the German Reich, West and East Germany, and the reunified Germany until the introduction of the euro. Pfennig was also the name of the subunit of the Danzig mark (1922–1923) and the Danzig gulden (1923–1939) in the Free City of Danzig.

Pound Scots

The pound Scots was the unit of currency in the Kingdom of Scotland before the kingdom unified with the Kingdom of England in 1707. It was introduced by David I, in the 12th century, on the model of English and French money, divided into 20 shillings, each of 12 pence. The Scottish currency was later debased relative to sterling and, by the time of James III, the pound sterling was valued at four pounds Scots.

Australian coins refers to the coins which are or were in use as Australian currency. During the early days of the colonies that formed Australia, foreign as well as British currency was used, but in 1910, a decade after federation, Australian coins were introduced. Australia used pounds, shillings and pence until 1966, when it adopted the decimal system with the Australian dollar divided into 100 cents. With the exception of the first Proclamation Coinage and the holey dollars, all Australian coins remain legal tender despite being withdrawn from circulation.

French denier Medieval coin

The denier or penny was a medieval coin which takes its name from the Frankish coin first issued in the late seventh century; in English it is sometimes referred to as a silver penny. Its appearance represents the end of gold coinage, which, at the start of Frankish rule, had either been Roman (Byzantine) or "pseudo-imperial". Silver would be the basis for Frankish coinage from then on. The denier was minted in France and parts of the Italian peninsula for the whole of the Middle Ages, in states such as the patriarchate of Aquileia, the Kingdom of Sicily, the Republic of Genoa, the Republic of Siena, and the crusader state Kingdom of Jerusalem, among others.

The Jamaican dollar has been the currency of Jamaica since 1969. It is often abbreviated to J$, the J serving to distinguish it from other dollar-denominated currencies. It is divided into 100 cents, although cent denominations are no longer in use as of 2018. Goods and services may still be priced in cents, but cash transactions are now rounded to the nearest dollar.

The Manx pound is the currency of the Isle of Man, in parity with the pound sterling. The Manx pound is divided into 100 pence. Notes and coins, denominated in pounds and pence, are issued by the Isle of Man Government.

From c. 1124 until 1709 the coinage of Scotland was unique, and minted locally. A wide variety of coins, such as the plack, bodle, bawbee, dollar and ryal were produced over that time. For trading purposes coins of Northumbria and various other places had been used before that time; and since 1709 those of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and then of the UK.

Jamaican pound Official currency of Jamaica from 1840 to 1969

The Jamaican pound was the official currency of Jamaica between 1840 and 1969. It circulated as a mixture of British currency and local issues and was always equal to the British pound. The Jamaican pound was also used by the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands.

Canadian pound

The pound was the unit of account for currency of the Canadas until 1858. It was subdivided into 20 shillings (s), each of 12 pence (d). In Lower Canada, the sou was used, worth 12 penny. Although the pounds, shillings, and pence accounting system had its origins in the British pound sterling, the Canadian pound was never formally linked to the British currency.

Penny (British pre-decimal coin) British pre-decimal coin worth 1/240 of a pound sterling

The pre-decimal penny (1d) was a coin worth 1/240 of a pound sterling, or 1/12 of a shilling. Its symbol was d, from the Roman denarius. It was a continuation of the earlier English penny, and in Scotland it had the same monetary value as one pre-1707 Scottish shilling. The penny was originally minted in silver, but from the late 18th century it was minted in copper, and then after 1860 in bronze.

Great Recoinage of 1816

The Great Recoinage of 1816 was an attempt by the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to re-stabilise its currency, the pound sterling, after the economic difficulties brought by the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

Twopence (British pre-decimal coin) Archaic British coin

The pre-decimal twopence (2d) was a coin worth 1/120 of a pound sterling, or two pence. It was a short-lived denomination in copper, being minted in only 1797 by Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint.



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