I’ve handled lots of currencies by now, and by far the most baffling set of coins I’ve encountered is the British. Not so much how they add up—it’s all on the decimal system—but the sizes and shapes. Look: you’ve got one penny, two pence, five pence, ten pence, twenty pence, fifty pence, one pound, and two pounds. Most of them make little sense as physical things.
What genius decided to make the two pence coin only slightly larger than the ten pence? When you’re feeling around for change in your purse, and you triumphantly emerge with just the coin you need to make that purchase, how crushing to realize you’re still 8p short because all you have is a couple pennies with an inflated sense of importance.
Then there’s the five pence piece, bane of my grandmother’s existence when she’s counting up the change in charity boxes and forever losing sight of them because they’re so tiny. Fiddly little coins, she calls them, and she’s not wrong. They’re so small and light (smaller and lighter than the penny, which is only one-fifth the value, because that makes sense), it’s a wonder anyone can find them in their coin purse at all. I’m pretty sure there’s an alternate universe populated solely by missing socks and millions of 5p pieces.
Why are the twenty pence piece and the fifty pence piece heptagons? Is this another Masonic conspiracy of some sort? Seven’s a significant number, right? Seven deadly sins, seven days in the week, seven wonders of the world, seven dwarves, seven shopping days til Christmas… At least there’s no worry of mixing up these coins with any others; the 50p piece is so large, chipmunks could use it as a dinner plate, and the 20p piece neatly fits within the circumference of the 10p piece, proving that we hold within us the ability to be twice as much as we are.
But there’s one coin you won’t find me puzzling over: the pound. The pound is a perfect coin, slightly smaller than the 10p but thicker than all the other coins, with a heft to it that lets you know immediately you’re holding a coin worth something. It’s thick enough to have writing around the edge; usually it’s the Latin for ‘an ornament and a safeguard,’ but there’s also a Welsh slogan (‘true am I to my country’) and a Scottish one (‘no one provokes me with impunity’—of course that’s the Scottish slogan).
At least it’s better than the former set-up, which worked according to the ancient Roman system, wherein 240 silver pennies equalled one pound of silver. This resulted in things like the half-crown, worth two shillings and a sixpence, which is less than a guinea but more than a tanner, and a few bob was much more than a few farthings, but not always equal to a florin. What? Yes. That foreign language you’re reading in a Dickens novel is the language of a money system standardized in medieval times. Spare a ha’penny, guvnor?
Of course, there are real reasons for these sizes and shapes, mostly related to when the switch from old money to the decimal system was made in 1971. But this is funnier. Final fun fact: since the switch to decimalization was made partway through Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, all the coins in the decimal system have only ever worn the face of one monarch.