Give ’em an inch…

Give Them an Inch

Measuring Tape by Sean MacEntee on Flickr

In these days of Brexit, I thought it would be nice to let people know where the terms for their precious pounds, shillings and pence and pounds and ounces come from. Good British weights, with a good British value. Or so you might think. I’m going to set my stall out, so to speak and say that I think the post-Brexit return to the old system of weights, measures and currency would be insane. The bewildering array of denominations in the ‘Imperial’ counting and measuring systems make meaningful calculations unnecessarily difficult and obfuscate the results from the scientific and engineering communities of the world. As I understand it, the people who want to return to this system are all around 75 years old and can’t be arsed to count in base ten like the rest of the world. Besides, British systems for British people, right? If you’ve got this far, I probably don’t have to try to convince you. If you’d like to know a bit more about the roots of these, the most British of values, read on.

LSD – pounds, shillings and pence. “Hang on”, I hear you say “That would surely be ‘PSP’ wouldn’t it?” I’m afraid not, no. For the complete newcomer, pounds shillings and pence was the system of currency used in the UK until February 15, 1971 when the decimal system was introduced. Britain went from an archaic and confusing currency system (more on that later) to counting in tens and people took to the streets to complain; maybe it never occurred to them to use their fingers. Only in Britain could this happen.

The system explained: The unit of currency was – as it still is – the pound (£). So far, so good. The pound was subdivided into various other combinations of coins: the farthing, the halfpenny, the threepenny piece, the sixpence, the shilling, the florin, the half crown and the crown. They were broken down as:

Farthing: The smallest denomination available, equal to one quarter of a penny.
Halfpenny: Speaks for itself. Half a penny (or 2 farthings).
Penny: One hundredth of a pound? Nope. There were in fact 240 of them to the pound.
Threepenny piece: Again, self explanatory. Worth 3 pennies (or 6 halfpennies or 12 farthings)
Sixpence: Er, 6 pence. Also 2 threepenny pieces, 12 halfpennies, 24 farthings or half a shilling.
Shilling: 12 pennies or one twentieth of a pound.
Florin: 2 shillings or one tenth of a pound.
Half crown: 2 shillings and sixpence or one eighth of a pound.
Crown: You guessed it; 5 shillings or one quarter of a pound.

In addition to this frightening array of coinage was the Guinea. This was a nominal sum left over from an age even further back (guinea coins are no longer minted except, I believe, as commemorative coins). 1 guinea represented one pound and a shilling and was often use by people to massage the price of things. Obviously, 20 guineas is much better value than 21 pounds – much like the “under 100 euros” you see today, on things that cost €99.99.

On to the point, finally. Why was the system known as LSD? The pound sign itself gives away the first part. In Italy, before the Euro, was the Lire. The symbol for the Lire was not that different to the one used for the pound – although the values certainly were. LSD stands for Librae (from which Lire was contracted), Solidi, Denarii, all terms used in Latin. A libra was the Roman equivalent of a pound in weight. As coins were originally worth their weight in the metal from which they were made, this actually makes some sense. Librae, by the way, is the plural of libra. The solidi was a gold Roman coin. Solidi these days is used in colloquial Italian to mean ‘cash’. Finally, the D – a denarius, a silver coin also minted by the Romans. What have the Romans ever done for us? Quite a lot, apparently.

From Latin/Italian to Latin/French. Unce is a word I stumbled upon recently while, like all good things, I was doing something else. Unce comes to us English speakers via the Old French Unce (itself via the Latin Uncia) and meant the ‘twelfth part’ of a measurement such as a pound (in the old Troy system of weights) or a foot. When the French arrived in England, they brought the avoirdupois system of weight (it literally means “having weight”), in which the unce was one sixteenth of an avoirdupois pound. It is from this we get 16 ounces, as they became, to the pound in what is spuriously referred to as the Imperial system. The Old English spelling ynce gave us the inch, as well. More of a mystery is why the French adopted the ounce as a division of the pound, but abbreviated it oz from the Italian onza.

Strange nomenclature and strange etymology aside, the British system has about as British an identity as Salami or the Breton Jersey.

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