Decimal coinage

Fifty years ago this week, Britain got rid of its notorious system of pounds, shillings and pence. Which may have been great for dividing sums into fractions in medieval times, but wasn’t much use with computers.

I’m not going to go into detail; the mechanics (basically twelve pennies to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound plus various other old coins) can be looked up on the net anywhere and they aren’t a Dunglish issue. The only issue it occasionally causes is that Dutch authors put American coins into texts that are meant to be British English and vice versa.

  • American coins that you shouldn’t refer to in British English contexts: cent, nickel, dime, quarter (two bits – not that there ever was a “bit”) and related usages such as a plugged nickel, two-bit gangster or dime-store novel
  • English pre-decimalization coins that you shouldn’t refer to in American English contexts: halfpenny, shilling (bob), sixpence (tanner), half a crown, guinea
  • However, EN-US is perfectly happy calling a one-cent coin a “penny” (but not the plural “pence”) and British English has adopted phrases like “bottom dollar”
  • And yes, there are other even older coins like farthings and florins and groats and threepenny bits, but those are mostly for historical contexts only.

I remember the changeover confusing all the grannies when I was a small kid. Not with any nostalgia, though: we all agree it was oudtated.

Prevalence: low. Not a Dunglish issue, other than the US-UK confusion.
Frequency: low. This post is just for interest’s sake: I’ve only seen these mistakes a few times.
Native: no. Not that anyone thinks in terms of the old coins any more, but we do know which terms are US and which are UK.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “Decimal coinage

  1. When I worked in the NHS (1997-8) I occasionally had to screen old people for dementia. If you asked them how much their pension a week was, and they answered in pounds shillings and pence, it was bad news…

    Liked by 2 people

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