Thursday, 8 December 2011

Changing times

Language is an ever evolving thing with words coming and going or just changing their meaning. Sometimes things happen overnight, or so it seems, and sometimes there is a gradual change. There are now many words in the dictionary that are described as being archaic and in my blog yesterday I used one that is on the way to being archaic. It is a word that many young English people would fail to understand so how foreigners non-English people Would cope is a matter of conjecture. The word concerned is half-crown.

Up until about 40 years ago the word was in common parlance, in everyday speech. As were tanner, bob and (to a lesser extent) florin. Then "they" went and changed our currency. Overnight those old, well-known friends became no more. Finished. On the scrap heap.

Well, not quite overnight. We had two days to effect the change from pounds, shillings and pence to pounds and pence. Even then the old coins must have remained in circulation for a while and the names remained in use. But now those words are going the way of the groat - and who nowadays knows what that was, apart from it being an ancient English coin. Of course, even before the switch to decimal we had lost the farthing.

Back in the old days, there were twelve pence in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound. The penny had been divided into four farthings but, as I said, the farthing had been done in, put to death, some years before we went decimal. The halfpenny still existed, although it was never called a half penny: it was a hape knee - and was sometimes written ha'penny. The next coin was the penny, then there was the threepenny bit (or joey). Of course, this being England we are talking about, threepenny was never pronounced as it is written. It might have been thrupny or threpny or, more commonly, throopny ("oo" short as in foot not long as in loot). The next coin was a silver one, the tanner or sixpence piece. Then came the shilling, or bob. The two shilling coin was a florin. There was no coin for the crown (five shillings) except for special occasions such as the 1951 Festival of Britain or the coronation in 1953, but there was the half-crown, worth two shillings and sixpence (note that sixpence is/was one word, not two as six pence). The pound came as folding, paper money, as did the ten shilling note and the five pound note. There was also something called a guinea. This was a completely unofficial denomination worth twenty-one shillings (one pound one shilling) and it could be divided into two with half a guinea being ten shillings and sixpence (10/6).

And that - 10/6 - is how sums of money consisting of only shillings and pence would often be written in numeral form. There was also a semi-numeral form - 10s 6d. Throw pounds into the mix and and the numeral form changed and the stroke became a full stop - £6.18.3 or, in the semi-numeral form - £6 18s 3d.

I suppose it is simpler now in so many ways, but back then the pound could be divided in so many ways. Of course, inflation over the years has meant that we don't need to split the pound quite so much now. But I wonder just how much longer people will understand just how precious was that half-crown Pop used to slip into my hand.

1 comment:

John May said...

When we had latin at school, we always nailed one pupil under the floorboards for the duration of the lesson. When it was my turn I went exploring and found a groat. Don't know what happened to it.