According to some, today is ‘Lucky Penny Day’. The OED describes a ‘lucky penny’ as usually one that is bent or perforated, or sometimes an old or foreign coin. In the early nineteenth century, a ‘luck-penny’ was defined as ‘the cash which the seller gives back to the buyer after the latter has paid him; it is given back with the hope that it may prove a lucky’. It’s also recorded that the participants would usually also spit on their palms to seal the deal.1
The origin of the word ‘penny’
Pennies or pence?
Both pence and pennies have existed as plural forms of penny since at least the 16th century. The two forms now tend to be used for different purposes: pence refers to sums of money (five pounds and sixty-nine pence) while pennies refers to the coins themselves (I left two pennies on the table). The use of pence rather than penny as a singular (the chancellor will put one pence on income tax) is not regarded as correct in standard English.
Pennies from heaven …
The humble penny has given us many idiomatic expressions and proverbs:
a bad penny always turns up – proverb someone or something unwelcome will always reappear or return.
be two (or ten) a penny – be plentiful and consequently of little value (chiefly British).
counting / watching the pennies (in the US, also ‘pinching’) – being careful about how much you spend.
in for a penny, in for a pound – used to express someone’s intention to see an undertaking through, however much time, effort, or money this entails.
look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves – if you concentrate on saving small amounts of money, you’ll soon amass a large amount.
pennies from heaven – unexpected benefits, especially financial ones.
the penny dropped – used to indicate that someone has finally realized something (chiefly British).
a penny for your thoughts – used to ask someone what they are thinking about.
Whether you pick up a lucky penny today, or seal a deal in ceremonial fashion by spitting in your hand, here’s hoping that it brings you luck!
1. “LUCK-PENNY” A Dictionary of Superstitions. Ed. Iona Opie and Moira Tatem. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Oxford University Press – Main Accnt. 23 May 2011
This article is reposted with permission from the OxfordWords blog.