A penny (pl. pence or pennies) is a coin or a unit of currency used in several English-speaking countries.
In the 8th century, Charlemagne
declared that 240 pennies or pfennigs
should be minted from a pound of silver. A Carolingian pound was approximately 326 grams, so a single coin thus contained about 1.36 grams of silver. (Today, this amount of silver would cost about 40p sterling.)
The penny is among the lowest denomination of coins in circulation.
- 1/100 of the British pound sterling (see British one penny coin), the former Irish pound, the Gibraltar pound, the Falkland Islands pound, or a coin with that value: see history of the English penny.
- 1/240 of the British pound sterling or Irish pound prior to February 15, 1971, of the Pound Scots prior to 1707, and also the pre-decimalisation currencies of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (1/12 of the shilling), or a coin of that value.
- The preferred name for the one-cent coin in the United States and in Canada, worth 1/100 of the dollar: see penny (U.S. coin), penny (Canadian coin).
In addition, variants of the word penny, with which they share a common root, are or were the names of certain units of currency in non-English-speaking countries:
In the United States and Canada, "penny" is normally used to refer to the coin; the quantity of money is a "cent." Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the plural of "penny" is "pence" when referring to a quantity of money and "pennies" when referring to a number of coins. Thus a coin worth five times as much as one penny is worth five pence, but "five pennies" means five coins, each of which is a penny.
When dealing with British or Irish (pound) money, amounts of the decimal "new pence" less than £1 may be suffixed with "p", as in 2p, 5p, 26p, 72p. Pre-1971 amounts of less than 1/- (one shilling) were denoted with a "d" which derived from the term "denarius", as in 2d, 6d, 10d. The lettering "new penny" or "new pence" was changed to "one penny", "two pence" or "five pence", etc. on British decimal coinage in 1982. Irish pound decimal coinage only used "p" to designate units (possibly as this sufficed for both the English word "pence", and Irish form "pingin").
The British penny as a unit of currency dates back well over a thousand years, and for most of that period the silver penny was the principal denomination in circulation.
To "spend a penny" in British idiom means to urinate. The etymology of the phrase is literal; some public toilets used to be coin-operated, with a pre-decimal penny being the charge levied. Eventually, at around the same time as the introduction of decimal coinage, British Rail gradually introduced better public toilets with the name Superloo and the much higher charge of 6d.
Finding a penny is sometimes considered lucky and gives rise to the saying, "Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day: you'll have good luck." This may be a corruption of "See a pin and pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck" and similar verses, as quoted in The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore and other sources.
In the US, the length of a nail is designated by its penny size
. This unit's abbreviation is d
(e.g. 10d for 10 penny nails), as for British pence before decimalization. A smaller number indicates a shorter nail and a larger number indicates a longer nail. Nails under 1¼ in., often called brads, are sold mostly in small packages with only a length designation (e.g. ½" (12 mm), 1⅛" (28 mm), etc.).
It is commonly believed that the origin of the term "penny" in relation to nail size is based on the old custom in England of selling nails by the hundred. A hundred nails that sold for six pence were "six penny" nails. The larger the nail, the more a hundred nails would cost, hence the larger nails have a larger number for their penny size. This classification system was still used in England in the 18th century, but is obsolete there now.
The physical handling and counting of pennies creates transaction costs
that may be higher than a penny for every penny spent. Furthermore, as has been claimed for micropayments
, due to mental transaction costs one penny may exceed the useful price granularity of almost all products and services sold over the counter—granularities of five or ten pence may be sufficient. Also, inflation periodically causes the metal value of pennies to exceed their face value, making them wasteful to mint. Several nations have stopped minting equivalent value coins, and efforts have been made to end the routine use of pennies in several countries, including Canada
and the United States
. However, the retail community supports the penny because of the advertising tactic of using 99 pence/cents to make something appear to have a lower price than it actually does.
- The MegaPenny Project - A visualisation of what exponential numbers of pennies would look like.
- Silver Pennies - Pictures of English silver pennies from Anglo-Saxon times to the present.
- Copper Pennies - Pictures of English copper pennies from 1797 to 1860.