Historically Speaking

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Bad Penny

Posted by Admin on September 18, 2021

Anytime you hear someone refer to a person or situation cropping back up as a bad penny, you know that can’t be good news. In fact, the bad penny in question is usually considered to be fake and definitely unwelcome.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: It has been thought for centuries that when you drop a penny in a wishing well and the wish does not come true, it’s because the penny was bad or counterfeit, not that the wish wasn’t worth granting.

For those who are wondering, the English penny was set at one-twelfth of a shilling (or 240 to a Tower pound) back in the 14th century. At first, it was made of silver, then copper, and eventually bronze (beginning in 1860). The English penny had two plural forms: Pence and pennies.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: In archery, a penny is a measure of weight for arrows that is equal to one-twelfth of the weight of a new British silver shilling.

But earlier than that, in Middle English, any coin of a small denomination was called a penny.

For movie buffs, they may recall in the 1989 movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when Elsa Schneider says to Indiana Jones, “I never expected to see you again” his response is, “I’m like a bad penny. I always turn up.”

As Idiomation researched the expression, two idioms were found in Volume I, Chapter IX of the 2-volume book, “Good In Everything” by Mrs. Rose Parker Foot née Harris, and published by Hurst and Blackett (successors to Henry Colburn) in 1857.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” exclaimed Emily.

“But I suppose he’s to return, like a bad penny, isn’t he?” asked Henry.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Rose Parker Foot was born in 1826 in London, Middlesex, UK. Her father was Charles Harris, esquire of Guildeford, and a surgeon, and her mother was Sarah Rose Holt. She married Joseph James Foot, eldest son of Joseph Foot, esquire of Stoke Newington, at St. Pancras on New Year’s Day in 1845, and aside from her brief literary career, she became the mother of six.

In Volume II of John Foster Kirk’s 1864 book, “The History of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy” a bad penny tax was discussed in the chapter titled, “Book IV, Chapter II: The Swiss Confederacy.” This volume begins in 1469. At the time, the prince-bishop of Liege was Philip the Prince of Savoy, and Edmund the Duke of Somerset as well as the knights of the Toison d’Or were in positions of power.

A tax on commodities being the common research in such cases, Hagenbach laid an impost, popularly known as the “Bad Penny” on wine — an article of domestic production, of universal consuption, and et not of absolute necessity.

In the 1815 book, “Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain” the American-French-Swiss painter, art critic, and author, Louis Simond (1767 – 1831) wrote:

Lord Chatham has one in the same hall by Bacon, 1802, overloaded likewise with thread-bare allegories, but you have at least here the figure of the illustrious man whose memory is intended to be honoured, which is certainly better than the bad penny of Nelson.

An example is found in 1742 in Henry Fielding’s translation of Aristophanes Plutus that discusses bad stamps and Ancient Greece, where the author writes:

We have a Proverb in English not unlike it, a bad Penny.

The term bad penny was established enough in English by the late 14th century for it to have been used in William Langland’s famous prose poem Piers Plowman, composed between 1372 and 1389.

Men may lykne letterid men to a badde peny.

Between 760 and 760 AD, in London (England), the broad flan penny was established as the principal denomination until the 14th century (see above). While pennies in the 12th century were 92 percent silver and 8 percent copper, by the time the 14th century rolled around, pennies contained more copper and less silver, making it difficult to know how much of each metal was used in minting pennies. The harder it was to know what was a real penny, the easier it was to produce and pass a counterfeit penny as the real deal.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: If you look under the date on the heads-side of an American penny, you might see a mint mark under the year. If the letter is a D, the coin was minted in Denver (Colorado). If the letter is an S, this is a much older penny that was minted in San Francisco (California). Pennies are no longer minted in San Francisco. And if there’s no letter, that means your penny was minted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: In 2018, the U.S. Mint stated it cost twice as much to produce a penny than what it was worth.

In Canada, the last penny minted was on 4 May 2012, following Denmark, Australia, and Ireland’s lead. Perhaps it won’t be long before people start to forget what various penny idioms mean. But until that happens, Idiomation is happy to say a bad penny has been around since the mid-1300s at least for William Langland to use it so readily in his prose poem.

If it was used much earlier, Idiomation hasn’t found a published account but Idiomation is always open to the possibility. After all, this bad penny might turn up again at some later date should Idiomation uncover more information worth sharing.

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