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The proverbial ninepence

The popularity of ninepence in proverbial sayings is amazing. To be sure, nine, along with three and seven, are great favorites of European folklore. No one knows for sure why just those numerals achieved such prominence. The reference to the fact that all of them are primes does not go far. Twelve has reached us from Mesopotamia, and we still have twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a year, and (in the United States) buy a dozen eggs. A nonstop orator “speaks nineteen to the dozen” (at least so in British English). I would not be in a hurry to trust the idiom’s etymology offered on the Internet, because every proverbial phrase with nine has a formulaic base and may have no foundation in historical fact (compare my discussion of nine tailors make a man: April 6, 2016): the “evidence” is usually invented in retrospect, to justify an obscure saying and therefore looks deceptively convincing. Remember also seven by nine politician (see the post for August 7, 2019), to look nine ways for Sunday, dressed up to the nines (in which nines is, most probably, a later substitution for eyes with the definite article in the plural dative before it!), nine days wonder, Cloud Nine, possession is nine points of the law (the latter phrase once served as the subject of a fine article by James A. H. Murray), and quite a few others. In 2017, I devoted a series of posts to nine of diamonds and the curse of Scotland. Ninepins are perhaps also worthy of mention.

However, ninepence is not only the mainstay of popular phrases: such a coin existed and became a common favorite. People went out of their way to find alliterative epithets that could go with it. Ninepence was called nice and nimble (though also plain, fine, grand, and right). Many reference books quote the 1840 Numismatics Chronicle (I retain the original spelling): “The nine-pence was formerly much favoured by faithful lovers in humble life as a token of their mutual affection. It was for this purpose broken into two pieces, and each party preserved with care one portion until, on their meeting again, they hastened to renew their vows.” A shilling, as is known, consisted of twelve pence, so that a stupid person acquired the reputation of being no more than ninepence in the shilling (that is, lacking three pence and therefore not all there), but the same phrase was applied to the greedy and avaricious people who always wanted to have a greater value for their shilling.

Just for your edification: a nimble ninepence is better that a slow shilling! The reference is to the fact that people are reluctant to spend large sums but spend small amounts easily. However, in the world of idioms, there is always a saying that contradicts another saying, because human wisdom is relative and limited. If you watch your pennies, your dollars will take care of themselves. Right? Yet some people are penny-wise but pound foolish. In any case, you may spend a nimble ninepence or break it into two halves, or let it roll—the result is unpredictable. In any case, give the old woman her ninepence, whatever that obscure recommendation means (I have once written about it).

A groat and a five-kopek coin. Four pence by Jerry Woody, CC-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Five-kopek coin via Picryl.

In my database, I have a few less “famous” sayings. A hundred and fifty years ago, in Ireland, they said about a stingy person: “As narrow in the nose as a pig at ninepence.” The alliteration is obvious, but the image is not: what is a pig at ninepence and why narrow? A pig’s snout perhaps resembles a coin, though hardly a narrow one (in Russian, it is called piatachók; the same word for a very narrow piece of land and a five-kopek coin: a kindred idea?). Also, long ago, the phrase Ninepence, Nanny! Two groats and a penny occurred in Derbyshire. This rigmarole was an evasive answer to somebody’s question: “What did so-and-so say?” (Such humorous phrases are many; only their humor is sometimes hard to grasp.) Now, a groat, which was worth four old pence, went out of use in the second half of the seventeenth century (the word is akin to grit). Its name probably did not die out because of the phrase “I don’t care a groat.” Nanny alliterates with ninepence and may be said to rhyme with penny, but the whole makes little sense. In any case, since two groats and a penny constituted a small sum of money, the mocking remark might perhaps intimate that the question did not deserve an answer.

Is it narrow? Pig via Pixaby, public domain.

Bring a noble to ninepence and ninepence to nothing (alliteration galore) and his noble has come down to ninepence are slightly more familiar. The latter is said about a person who has been brought down in the world, and from a state which in his own estimation had been rather an important one, while the first refers to those who live beyond their means.

I think something should also be said about a shilling. Perhaps the best-known phrase with this word is to cut one off with a shilling. In the past, it was discussed by many people. My references go all the way from 1854 to 1928. The meaning of the act (rather than of the idiom) is, as far as I can judge, noncontroversial: “To be disinherited from a will by being bequeathed a single shilling rather than nothing at all.” The phrase is not particularly old: the OED has no citations predating 1762, but I seem to have a 1754 reference. It has been suggested that for a testator to prove that he was mentally alert, he had to leave the child at least something. An old law allowed fathers and husbands to disinherit their children and wives by leaving them only a sixpence (thus, even less than a shilling).

A haunting word, a terrible thing. The Coat of Arms of Sir Winston Churchill (1620-1688). CC-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Not versed in legal history, I wonder: could an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, in the twelfth or thirteenth century, disinherit his son? Since my childhood, I remember that Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the hero of Walter Scott’s novel (years ago, it was part of high school curricula but is no longer such, because our young people’s minuscule vocabulary does not allow them to read nineteenth-century books in their native language: the common verdict is: “Boring”). Anyway, Ivanhoe’s father disinherited Ivanhoe for his allegiance to King Richard Lionheart and for falling in love with Lady Rowena, Cedric’s ward, destined for a most unprepossessing native nobleman. Ivanhoe appears at a tournament incognito, with the Spanish word Desdichado on his shield. This mysterious word meaning “disinherited” haunted me for years, but it reflected the protagonist’s status well. Is there documentary evidence for Walter Scott’s description of Ivanhoe’s situation? Probably fathers could disinherit their children in all centuries.

I wonder whether many of our readers were troubled by such mysterious words in their “green years.” Along with Desdichado, the magic word mutabor from Wilhelm Hauff’s Caliph Stork filled me with awe. To return to their human form, the Caliph and his retainer had to say mutabor, but they had been enjoined not to laugh while in their bird form for fear of forgetting the word. In fairy tales, interdictions exist only to be violated. Of course, the two men laughed. Years later, when I took my first course in Latin, I discovered that mutabor means “I’ll change” (mutate, as it were) and was disappointed: the magic of the incomprehensible charm was gone. Fortunately, nowadays, children don’t study Latin, just as they don’t study grammar, or read Walter Scott, for none of the three is “fun.” The opposite of in for a penny, in for a pound, I believe.

Feature image: Cigogne en envole by Groteddy via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Samuel D. Albert

    Mesopotamia is responsible not just for the 12’s in our lives –hours, months, and eggs== but also the 360 of the circle, a number surpisingly well divisible (2, 3, 5 and all their combinations, including 12.)

  2. Martin Turner

    All fine and interesting, Anatoly, but the number nine is very far from prime!

  3. Stephen Goranson

    “He left one Son and two Daughters, whom by his Will he cut off with one Shilling a piece, and left his estate to two Cousins.”
    The Gentleman’s magazine 1733 p. 215, hathitrust.org

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