British coins in UK slang

Sixpence piece - the tanner
Sixpence piece – the tanner

The sixpence ceased to be legal tender on June 30 1980. It had been in circulation since the reign of Edward the Sixth (1547 – 1553) and was affectionately known as the ‘tanner’.

With its demise went a whole chapter of English slang that had been born from the many units of old currency. Money is now quite boring; none of the coins have any other nicknames and are equally fewer in number than the old sterling set that started with the farthing.

The farthing is most probably as mysterious to the modern generation as the groat was to mine. The farthing had a robin on one side, apparently a wren but we knew it as a robin; and when our school tuck shop was open for business bought one fruit salad, a chewy sort of sticky sweet with no fruit in it at all.

The aptly named penny farthing
The aptly named penny farthing

One of the books we had to read was A Kid for Two Farthings from Amazon books. That would mean nothing to anyone under the age of thirty now although two farthings made a halfpenny and one farthing was one half of the famous penny farthing bicycle. So called because it had one very small back wheel ‘the farthing’ and a very large front wheel ‘the penny’. It looks odd and it most probably was and just as uncomfortable to ride.

The farthing was discontinued in 1960; and with it I suppose fruit salads from the tuck shop. And years later tuck shops themselves being the front line in the decline in health standards and culprits of tooth decay.

Four farthings or two half pennies made one penny. There was no two penny coin although you could buy a two penny ice cream cornet, pronounced a ‘tuppenny one’. Two would cost fourpence. You didn’t get a fourpenny coin either but giving someone a ‘fourpenny one’ meant giving them a good punch in the face resulting in two black eyes; a reference I suppose to having two tuppenny black discs.

Twopence or tuppence featured in a well know cockney song ‘Any Old Iron’; an MP3 from Amazon.

Any old iron any old iron any any old, old iron?
You look neat – talk about a treat,
You look dapper from your napper to your feet.
Dressed in style, brand new tile,
And your father’s old green tie on,
But I wouldn’t give you tuppence for your old watch chain,
Old iron, old iron?

In the middle of this was the threepenny bit (pronounced thruppence). A six sided brass coloured coin that you could easily stand on its edge. You could stack quite a few in a pyramid if you had steady hands.

This coin entered cockney rhyming slang. Threepenny bits referred to women’s breasts or tits, as in ‘she’s got a nice pair of threepenny bits. An alternative might be ‘a nice pair of Bristols’ or Bristol Cities (titties).

Then came the sixpence as mentioned above worth six pence or if you like, two threepennies. It was a small silver coin often placed in Christmas puddings and just as often swallowed with the brandy butter. More on tanners a bit later.

Two sixpennnies, four threepennies, twelve pennies or even more halfpennies and farthings made up a shilling. This was a slightly bigger silver coin than the sixpence and referred to in a very friendly way as a bob. It featured in an old schoolboy joke; ‘what did the gas meter say to the shilling? Glad you popped in Bob I was just going out’. People’s houses were fuelled by gas through a gas meter that had to be fed shilling pieces.

Two shillings made up a florin or a two bob bit. Not used in the same way as threepenny bits. Then came the half crown. This was a large silver coin worth two shillings and six pence. It had a more common name which was to ask someone for a ‘two and a kick’. I’ve no idea why sixpence became a ‘kick’ unless it was a slurred form of six.

This in common with the other silver coins had milled edges, very light lines cut across the surface of the rim. In the old days coins were made of real silver and it was possible to slice of a piece of silver with your teeth, silver being then as now a valuable commodity. If you didn’t have strong teeth any sharp implement would do to extract the silver. So to stop the occurrence coins were made of baser metals and given a milled edge so users knew that it had not been tampered with and was of full value.

The crown was discontinued many more years previous being two half crowns or five shillings, although the Royal Mint did make special issues on occasions such as Royal Weddings and still do today.

Then paper money takes over with the ten shilling note, the pound note and the five pound note; all of which have endured several changes of colour and design. There is now a fifty pound note but not easy to get changed in most shops.

One other note that deserves mention in the nine bob note. There never has been a nine bob note which gave rise to the expression ‘as bent as a nine bob note’ when talking about somebody associated with the criminal classes. It has lately been used as a disparaging term against gays.

The guinea was replaced as the major unit of currency by the pound in the Great Recoinage of 1816. Even after it was discontinued the name guinea was long used to represent one pound and one shilling. There is now no one guinea note or one guinea coin but it was a very popular price for goods. Rather it was a very snobbish way of making something sound more important than it was by pricing it in guineas rather than pounds. So five pounds became five guineas which is five pounds and five shillings. And so it continued until a few years after decimalisation in 1971 and now the guinea has passed into legend but it’s name is still revered in certain circles.

Two of the classic horse races are the One Thousand Guineas and Two Thousand Guineas which are run at Newmarket in the early part of the flat season.

Not as much as either one or two thousand guineas are a pony and a monkey. These are slang terms for twenty five pounds and five hundred pounds. You don’t hear these used much either these days either. Decimal coinage just does not have that kind of magic.

To contact John Barber: moc.r1508745770ebrab1508745770nhoj@1508745770tcatn1508745770oc1508745770