A Penny Saved Is a Waste of Time


On Language

How our coins got their names.


The 1909 penny.

Election Day is here again, and I know there are some single-issue voters out there who haven’t forgotten an issue of our time that Congress has repeatedly failed to act on, despite the introduction of bills HR 3761 in 1989, HR 2528 in 2001, and HR 5818 in 2006. President Obama has stated that he is in favor—the lobbyists for outnumber the lobbyists against—and yet the Price Rounding Act, the Legal Tender Modernization Act, and the Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN) Act, respectively, have all failed to pass. As a nation, we have yet to abolish the penny.

A penny costs more to produce than it is worth (even after the 1982 change from a 95 percent copper composition to 97.5 percent zinc), so the U.S. loses tens of millions of dollars a year minting them; the sheer cost of lost time spent hunting for pennies, waiting in line behind someone else hunting for pennies, and disposing of pointless pennies once we have them has been estimated at as high as a billion dollars a year. No coin in U.S. history has ever been worth less than a penny is today, by a long shot: the half cent, eliminated in 1857, was worth more than a dime in today’s buying power. A penny saved may be a penny earned, but it is about two seconds of income for an average American, so who cares. Yet again, the Ben Franklin for our time turns out to be Andy Warhol: “I hate PENNIES. I wish they’d stop making them altogether. I would never save them. I don’t have the time. I like to say in stores, ‘Oh forget it, keep those pennies. It makes my French wallet too heavy.’ ”

One thing we’ll lose, when the penny eventually goes the inevitable way of the half cent and the Canadian penny (extinct as of 2012), is the last possible link between our language of money and the everyday physical world.

A quarter is a fourth of a dollar, a dime a tenth (Old French dîme, Latin decima), a cent a hundredth or one percent—all math. Anyway, a cent is not a piece of money: a U.S. penny is technically a cent or one-cent coin, but in spoken language, a cent is a value and a penny is a coin. We offer someone our two cents, not two pennies; pennies can clink in your pocket, cents can’t. (When Americans adopted the British term penny in 1793, they took over the distinction, too: in England between pennies and pence.)

Nickel refers to something specific, but also tautological and unreal. A nickel is made out of nickel, the little devil, a diminutive Old Nick: a Nickel in German is a goblin or rascal, and nickel ore was called Kupfernickel, or devil’s copper, mischievously tricking miners and yielding no copper despite its coppery appearance. (The German etymology is why nickel ends in –el, not –le, like another German import, pumpernickel.)

As for penny, its etymology is uncertain, though the ending implies a Germanic origin—the word used to be penning, with an -ing, like shilling and farthing, instead of a -y. The root may be Pfand, which turned into the English word pawn meaning “a pledge or token”: in that case, penny basically just means money. Or it may derive from the German Pfanne, “pan,” the round metal thing that you cook in. My head says it’s pawn: the pan pun sounds like classic folk etymology that somebody simply made up. But my heart belongs to Pfanne: surely the original coin goes back to some concrete reality, an object of actual use.

What about dollars? They have a definite birthday, January 15, 1520, when Bohemia’s Counts von Schlick began minting coins from silver mined in St. Joachim’s Dale: Joachimsthal (now known as Jáchymov, Czech Republic, near Karlovy Vary). These coins were called Joachimsthaler, soon shortened to thaler. (The H is silent, the vowels pronounced just as they are in dollar.)

Dollars also have a brother of sorts, a demon far worse than the tricky Nickel: pitchblende. (Pitch refers to its black color; blende is another kind of ore, from the German blenden, deceive, because the material was dense enough to be metal but had no known economic uses. Those German miners were fooled again.) It was pitchblende, now called uraninite, from Joachimsthal, in which Marie Skłodowska-Curie discovered and isolated radium, leading to her Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 and her death from radiation exposure in 1934, five years after a certain golemically named Dr Löwy of Prague had shown that “mysterious emanations” in the mine led to cancer. (Miners: 0 for 3.) Until World War I, the birthplace of the dollar was the only known source of radium in the world. Get rid of the penny and, maybe it’s only fair, self-referential fractions and nuclear poison will be all we have left for the meaning of money.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.