Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Penny Wise And Pound Foolish

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 1, 2011

A few months after World War II, in Oregon, the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper ran an article on February 26, 1946 entitled, “Penny Wise, Pound Foolish?” 

The story was about the proposed junior college for veterans at Klamath Falls that would use up nearly all of the estimated $450,000 USD in state reserves.  The alternate site for the junior college was the Vanport (Portland) facilities where there would be marginal costs for remodelling as there were already 4,300 vacant housing units on site, equipped and ready for immediate use. 

Over the decades leading up to that article and since then, the phrase has been used to point out the flawed thinking with regards to public, as well as private, expenditures.

In Michigan, the Ludington Daily News ran an article entitled “Fixing The Blame” on September 27, 1901 that reported:

The members of the city council who are seeking to hold up the electric light contract should remember that it is not always good policy to antagonize those men who seek to build up and improve our city.  The city can afford to be liberal in its dealings with any man, or with any enterprise that desires to do something which will benefit the city.  Compared with contracts existing in other towns, the proposition of Mr. Stearns is a very liberal one and the council cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish in its treatment of the matter.  Good man have been driven out of other cities by such an indifferent policy.

In a Letter to the Editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia on April 11, 1833 (but written by, and signed, “a breeder of Australian wool on March 27, 1833) the anonymous author wrote:

And it is to the want of this consistency in breeding that the undoubted degeneration of our wools is to be attributed; a degeneration which will fearfully augment, unless immediately and universally counteracted by the general infusion of pur imported blood into all our breeding animals, and by the total exclusion of that “penny wise, pound foolish” system of partial improvement, through the means of which, the bulk of our fleeces are evidently retrogading [sic].  There can exist no excuse whatever on the part of our breeders, to justify them in obstinately persisting in their present course.

English poet and dramatist, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) published The Spectator in 1712, in which he wrote:

I shall not speak to the point of cash itself, until I see how you approve of these my maxims in general : but I think a speculation upon “many a little makes a mickle, a penny saved is a penny got, penny wise and pound foolish, it is need that makes the old wife trot” would be very useful in the world: and, if you treated them with knowledge, would be useful to yourself, for it would make demands for your paper among those who have no notion of it at present.  But of these matters more hereafter.

Later in the same book, Joseph Addison wrote:

I know several of my fair readers urge in defense of this practice, that it is but a necessary provision they make for themselves, in case their husband proves a churl, or miser; so that they consider this allowance as a kind of alimony, which they may lay their claim to, without actually separating from their husbands.  But, with submission, I think a woman who will give up herself to a man in marriage, where there is the least room for such an apprehension, and trust her person to one whom she will not rely on for the common necessaries of life, may very properly be accused (in the phrase of a homely proverb) of being “penny wise and pound foolish.”

The phrase is found in E. Topsell’s book “Four-footed Beasts” published in 1607:

If by couetousnesse or negligence, one withdraw from them their ordinary foode, he shall be penny wise, and pound foolish.

But, in the end, it is a Scottish proverb.  According to the Registers of the Stationers’ Company, the book “The Chapman of a Peneworth of Wit” dates back to before the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and contains the phrase.  As a side note,in 1560 John Sampson aka John Awdeley aka Sampson Awdeley paid for the rights to republish “The Champan of a Peneworth of Wit” in parts under the title, “Penny-wise, Pound-foolish.”

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