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Take a Word.... Penny: Etymology, History, Sayings; Story of 'Penny and Her Guy' and Bonfire Night

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Ann likes to research the history of words, to experiment with them and to encourage others to use fresh words and idioms.

What's your first image?

What do you first think of when you read the isolated word ‘penny’; coins, sayings or a person maybe? The more you cogitate, the more phrases and sayings you might come up with.

Just for fun, see how many you can jot down before you read on!


Where does the word ‘penny’ come from?

Versions of it appeared in various forms in Old English: penig, pening, penning, pending. Variations still appear in German (Pfennig), Dutch and Swedish (penning/peng) and in West Frisian (peinje or penje).

There is ‘pengar’ in Swedish, ‘penger’ in Norwegian, ‘penge’ in Danish and ‘peningur’ in Faroese. All those are thought to have a common root with the English word ‘pawn’, German ‘Pfand’ and Dutch ‘pand’, all of which mean a pledge or token.

Let’s study the coin and then I’ll tell you a story.

Penny Coin (old 'd', new 'p')

Once upon a time when I was young, there were £,s,d (pounds, shillings & pence). There were half-pennies (hā-p’nies), quarter-pennies called farthings (with the robin on them) and three-penny bits.

As in £,s,d, a penny then had the symbol ‘d’, e.g. 6d (sixpence)’. The ‘d’ came from the Roman word ‘denarius’, a small silver coin. Pennies used to be silver, then later copper, before the use of bronze, an alloy which was cheaper and lighter. Pennies can still be referred to as ‘coppers’.

When I was a girl, oh so many moons ago, there were 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. Coinage was different too, for example we had a coin for 2 shillings (a florin) and a coin for 2/6 (two and a half shillings) called half a crown, a crown being 5 shillings. Maths at school was a nightmare for me; adding pounds, shillings and pence in three columns always tied my mind in knots!

The modern penny has the symbol ‘p’ for obvious reasons. There are 100 pennies to the pound. The old shilling is now a ten pence piece though worth much less! The penny has changed size over the years too. A Victorian penny was much larger than today’s and worth much more.

A 3d coin and Tuppence worth

The three pence piece, or ‘thrě’p’ny bit’ as it was colloquially called, was a dodecahedron and bronze in colour, a favourite of mine because it was so different. Something of that value was worth ‘threppence’ or ‘thruppence’ depending on the local vernacular, that is the ‘ee’ became a short ‘e’ as in ‘bed’ or a short ‘u’ as in ‘cup’. The third ‘e’ was swallowed, so you ended up with ‘threp’nce’.

If we wanted 2d’s worth of sweets we’d ask for ‘tuppence worth’, or ‘a tuppenny worth’. The phrase also referred to voicing one’s opinion as part of a conversation; ‘He added his tuppence worth.’

An old-fashioned Maths Test

Add together these two amounts:

£10, 12s, 10d + £ 4, 10s, 4d

How much do you have?

This is how it goes:

10+4 d = 1s 2d;

12+10 s = £1 2s;

£10+4 = £14

making a total of £15 3s 2d

Were you right?!


There are many uses of ‘penny’ in phrases and sayings, probably because money and its transactions are so important that they spark interest and can cause problems or arguments. A few of these phrases can be found in the following but you might know more; do let me know in the comments.

Penny and Her Guy: a Short Story

It was a week before the 5th November, Bonfire Night, sometimes called Guy Fawkes night. Penelope, known to her friends as Penny, had collected a pile of wood from fields and ditches, begged for off-cuts from her Dad’s workshop and built a magnificent bonfire in the back garden. As yet, this bright-eyed ten year old didn’t have a Guy to put on top.

Penny scarcely had two pennies to rub together but she was resourceful. Her Mum had given her an old straw hat, some red pyjama bottoms and a discarded shirt. A couple of old pillows were about to go out for the bin men, so Penny grabbed those, opened them up and used the innards for stuffing. Some old twine in the pantry drawer served to tie the ends of his arms and legs to keep it all in and he was almost ready.

‘A quick raid on the button tin, a piece of charcoal and a pound to a penny I’ll have the best guy around’, she thought.

Urchins with their Guy

'Penny for the Guy' in Welsh

'Penny for the Guy' in Welsh

Penny for the Guy!

A well-made guy with character always earned the most pennies from the neighbours. Penny wanted to beat those little urchins who frequented the penny arcades nearby. They went round shouting ‘penny for the guy!’, wheeling a scraggy old scarecrow with its eyes missing, playing their penny whistles and expecting to earn a fortune. Well, her guy would be the envy of all. Her fireworks would fly higher, burn brighter, last longer and be more colourful than any in town.

“Penny for your thoughts?” said Mum, walking in to find her daughter staring out of the window, eyes shining.

“Just deciding which fireworks to buy. Do you think there’ll be any left at Mr Brown’s?”

“Sure to be, sweetheart, but they cost a pretty penny, we won’t be able to buy a lot.”

“That’s ok. I’m gonna get lots of pennies from the neighbours and I’ve saved a little. You know what grandma says, ‘Watch the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves! A penny saved is a penny earned.’” Her voice told the story of having heard those phrases over and over again.

“No penny sweets for me this week.” The corner shop had missed her weekly visit to spend her pocket money.

Best Guy in Town

Penny’s Guy was resplendent in his smart trousers, washed white shirt, cap and a cheeky red scarf tied round his neck. With bright blue button eyes and a charcoal smile, he seemed to say, ‘In for a penny in for a pound, let’s go kid!’ Her hard work should bring her a reward. She propped him up in Dad’s wooden barrow. A hand-written note pinned to the guy said, ‘Penny for the Guy! Please.’ She’d added the ‘please’ not wishing to be rude.

“Hey, Penny, thought you wanted a smart Guy?” Penny, taken aback, looked at her Mum whose eyes were twinkling as she tried not to laugh.

Then the penny dropped. “Oh, Mum, you’re teasing. He’s really good, isn’t he?”

“Course he is; couldn’t be better!” she chuckled as she wished her daughter “Good Luck!”

Corner Shop

Where have they all gone?

Where have they all gone?

A Surprise from Mr Brown

Penny’s route took her past the corner shop where the penny sweets were usually her weekly treat. Mr Brown was known as a penny-pinching old man but she liked him. She always gave him a smile and sometimes she got the suggestion of one back, with his strong, straight gaze. With a deep breath she stepped up to the counter.

“Hello, Mr Brown! I wondered if you’d like to see my Guy for bonfire night. He’s just outside.”

Mr Brown regarded her with aplomb, his dark eyes showing no emotion. He followed her out to the Guy, stood there for a while and, having had a good look, went back into his shop.

Penny watched in astonishment as Mr Brown signaled her to cup her hands, took every single copper from his till and handed them to her. With eyes shining, she thanked him. He inclined his head. As she left the shop and put the coins in her collection hat, Mr Brown’s eyes smiled.

‘Pennies from heaven’, she thought, ‘or in this case from Mr Brown. ‘Who’d’ve thought it?!’

Doing the Rounds

Her route took her up and down familiar streets where familiar faces greeted her with smiles and a few pennies as she went. Early on, one of the little urchins approached her. What was he doing round here now, turning up like a bad penny?

“Where ‘ja get all that?”

“Mr Brown gave me a lot; he emptied a whole slot of his till!” she replied with pride.

“Na, never, old penny-pincher? Don’t believe ya”, whereupon Penny cuffed him round the ear and told him not to be rude. “He’s a good man, Mr Brown is and I’m not a liar.”

The urchin, surprised at Penny’s uncharacteristic outburst, slouched off muttering to himself and giving her dirty looks.

Most of her route was soon done and she’d collected a good sum. By the time she got home, she was desperate to spend a penny and dashed past her Mum on the doorstep.

“Sorry, Mum, must go!” Her mother laughed. Looking at Penny’s collection hat, she was pleased to see it full.

Counting the Pennies

“How much did you get?” she asked when her daughter returned from the bathroom.

“I don’t know yet. Lots of people were so lovely to me and I even found a couple of pennies in the gutter.”

“Well, well, you know the old saying? See a penny, pick it up, then all day you’ll have good luck! You’ve certainly been lucky today.”

“Let’s count it!” Penny couldn’t wait to find out how much was there.

Excitedly, she emptied the hat out onto the kitchen table. They spent half-an-hour making piles of pennies, counting the twelves, twenties and pounds. When they’d finished, they checked it all again. Just over £20; a fortune to Penny. She could buy enough fireworks for a week!

A Box of Fireworks

‘Come on, Mum, let’s go down to Mr Brown’s!’

Mr Brown boasted a rare grin when Penny had chosen her box of fireworks. Outside, the urchin’s nose was pressed against the window-pane. His jaw dropped as Mr Brown carried the box outside and said,

“Guys are two a penny but yours is outstanding. This box is going on the van and will be delivered to you within the hour, Miss. Thank you for your custom.”

Penny laughed as she walked passed the boy. “Good luck with your ‘penny for the guy’”, she said and pressed a coin into his hand. “Here’s one to start you off.”



In for a penny, in for a pound; some have the philosophy that if you’re going to try something you may as well put everything into it. Apparently, the phrase originates from the fact that, years ago, you were charged the same interest on borrowing a penny as you were on a pound.

See a penny, pick it up, then all day you’ll have good luck! (or, all day you’ll have a penny!) The saying also refers to ‘a pin’, presumably from the superstition, to avoid hurting yourself or someone else. Though the rhyme is dubious, it stuck!

A penny whistle was a tin whistle which used to cost a penny. Articles didn’t go up in price as frequently as they do now so it was commonplace for years and now refers to any cheap whistle.

Spend a penny (go for a pee); there were public toilets at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, where 1d had to be paid, so the phrase started and is used to this day, though most toilets in Britain are free. It’s often the case in other countries of Europe that a coin is required, either put into a collection saucer or into a slot on the door.

Pennies from heaven can apply to a windfall, when someone leaves you money unexpectedly or you win some by sheer chance. It also refers to falling in love; something good happens to you, sent from heaven, much better than receiving money!

Turn up like a bad penny; if someone you don’t like or don’t want to see keeps turning up he’s likened to a bad penny, a tarnished or broken or defaced penny which is most likely to keep appearing in a pile of good ones - you know the feeling!

Two a penny: there are many of them, therefore they’re cheap. There is a nursery rhyme which includes the phrase. It refers to the tradition of hot buns with a cross of them which are made for Good Friday, the Friday before Easter.

Penny Lane

I can't finish the 'penny' references without mentioning Penny Lane. No, not another girl! It's a well-known street in Liverpool and was the subject of a Beatles’ song in 1967. Penny Lane was near John Lennon’s childhood home. Paul McCartney and John met at Penny Lane, a bus terminus for several routes, to catch a bus to the city centre.

The song, which describes daily life in Penny Lane, is well worth a listen - of course it is, it's The Beatles!

Go to:

Hot Cross Buns

Glazed hot cross buns for Good Friday, flavoured with sultanas & cinnamon and crossed with pastry.

Glazed hot cross buns for Good Friday, flavoured with sultanas & cinnamon and crossed with pastry.

Nursery Rhyme

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny - Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,
One a penny, two a penny - Hot cross buns!

(Is this the original ‘Buy one, get one free’?!)

See below for a link to the tune for this rhyme.

The Story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605

Guy Fawkes was a Catholic. Elizabeth I had persecuted Catholics who were hoping that the new king, James I, would be more tolerant. He wasn’t, so 13 men decided to try to do something about it and that something was an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

Guy Fawkes and his 12 accomplices acquired barrels of gunpowder and stored them in a cellar just beneath the House of Lords. One of the men, realising that innocent people might be killed, sent a letter to a friend, telling him to stay away on 5th November.

However, the letter reached the king and plans were made to stop the conspirators. Guy Fawkes happened to be in the cellar when it was stormed by the king’s men. He was caught, tried, then hung, drawn and quartered.

Because of this, the reigning monarch only enters Parliament on one day of the year, for the ‘State Opening’ and then only after the Yeomen of the Guard has searched the cellars!

Bonfires were originally set alight to celebrate the safety of the king.

Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)

Taken from The London Eye at dusk

Taken from The London Eye at dusk

Another Rhyme

Please to remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder treason and plot.

There is no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

We commemorate the event by having bonfires, burning Guys on top of them and setting off fireworks in celebration.

Bridgwater Carnival

The town of Bridgwater, in Somerset, takes the event a step further. It has a huge Carnival on the Saturday nearest to 5th November, started for the same reason. It was an area where Catholics and Protestants had fought each other for many years and finally it was decided to try to unite the two factions with a Carnival as an extension of bonfire night, making floats and tableaux with competitions for the best.

A unique feature of the Bridgwater Carnival, as opposed to those in the surrounding towns, is ‘squibbing’. A group of about 100 men would each hold a stick above their heads, a large ‘Roman Candle’ attached to its end. All would be lit at the same time and the last to die out would earn its bearer all the money put into a hat by each participant before the start.

Bridgwater Carnival has become Europe’s largest night-time illuminated parade, with over 100 individual entries as well as dancers and bands, all of whom make their way round the streets following a prescribed route. The squibbing then takes place around midnight; it creates a thick, acrid, white smoke and the light from all the Roman Candles is more intense than daylight, reflected in the sky for miles around.

People also throw pennies into the charity collection floats.

Isn't it amazing what you get from a collection of pennies?!