For What It’s Worth is an occasional look at the meanings and origins of words and expressions investors may encounter.

By Joel Dresang

Now that Canada is pitching its penny, its neighbors to the south can rekindle debates over whether it’s worthwhile making cents.

The Royal Canadian Mint pressed its last penny in 2012, after production costs had risen to more than 1.6 cents per coin. Meanwhile, the U.S. Mint continues to mull its options as the unit costs for making and circulating the American penny are twice the coin’s face value.

As anyone whoever enjoyed penny candy can tell you, one cent isn’t worth what it used to be.

Still, we continue to use expressions that value our lowliest coin.

  • Pennies from heaven are considered a blessing.
  • Find a penny, and it brings good luck only if you pick it up.
  • A penny for your thoughts suggests that whatever is on your mind is worth something.
  • Putting in your two cents is just a humble price for your opinion.
  • Penny-pinching can have negative connotations, but it’s also an attribute of prudence: The slightest details matter.
  • The same with the aphorism that a penny saved is a penny earned.
  • Being penny wise is bad only if you’re pound foolish.

For the most part, though, pennies suffer from bad press dating back hundreds of years. Consider gamblers of the 19th century complaining of low-stake card games as penny ante. A 49er gold-digger in California, when the copper content in pennies was higher, is said to have coined the expression “not worth a red cent.” There’s also the notion of a bad penny as an unwanted item that you can’t get rid of.

Etymologists trace the word “penny” to at least the eighth century and figure it was derived from the German pfennig, a coin thought to be named from the Latin pannus, which was a cloth used for currency in the Dark Ages.

In the early days of American independence, the statesman Gouvernor Morris advocated for linguistic autonomy and pushed for scrapping the British term “penny” in favor of calling 1/100th of a dollar a “cent.” That’s what it says on the coin in your loafers. But it didn’t rid “penny” from our vocabulary. We should expect it to linger long after the coin itself is out of usage.

Joel Dresang is vice president of communications at Landaas & Company.

(initially posted Feb. 8, 2013)

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