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Why is it a Penny When it's not a Cent?

by Bill Tuttle

Since the beginning of its creation, the US cent has been mislabeled a penny (plural = “pennies”).


This author’s theory is because our roots as a country are British, which use the “Pound Sterling” counting system (240 Pence [“proper” plural of Penny] = 1 Pound). While we, the Thirteen Colonies, were “controlled” by the British, the Pound Sterling system was in use. 

Even after our Revolution from Great Britain, some states used the Pound Sterling system until the newly formed United States began the “Decimalization of the Dollar” system (100 Cents = 1 Dollar). Our dollar coin was patterned after the “Spanish Dollar,” or “Piece of Eight” (8 Reals), which was divided by 8 “bits.” This is why the Quarter [25 Cents] is sometimes referred to as “2 bits” [2 x 12.5 Cents]).

There was some debate in creating the new “Decimal System” for the ‘new” country, but it was eventually settled that the Dollar be divided by 1000 cents (Mills). But the early coins of that era in the lowest denomination were minted as “HALF CENT” and bore the fraction 1/200. The “CENT” (not PENNY) said “ONE CENT” on the reverse and to further show its worth “1/100” (of a dollar) was displayed at the bottom of the coin. (Remember the British Penny is worth 1/240th of a Pound in the “Pound Sterling” system.)

However, some “die hard” (now) former colonists continued to refer to the Cent as a “Penny.” That wrongful designation still continues to this day from Poor Richard’s Almanac, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” to the 1930s song “Pennies From Heaven.” It even shows on coin wrappers issued by the banks and official government agencies as “50 Pennies” (the plural of [US] “penny”).

Since the copper (and copper plated zinc) US coin is a CENT, not a “Penny” the wrappers and government agencies should call the coin what it is--a CENT. The plural of “Cent” is “Cents.” The PROPER plural of “penny” is “Pence,” not “Pennies.”Other countries who use the “Decimal Dollar” have it correct, calling their lowest denominated coin a CENT, NOT a PENNY.

This “Viewpoint” was written by Bill Tuttle, a collector from Cleveland, Ohio.

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