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Pennies: Government decision turns Canada into nation that makes no cents.
Pennies: Government decision turns Canada into nation that makes no cents.

Warren Clements

Get in your two cents worth while the penny's still around Add to ...

The federal budget doesn’t usually double as an obituaries page, but the March 29 edition did. The Royal Canadian Mint will no longer produce the one-cent coin and, as of this fall, will no longer distribute those it has.

The agency says Canadians may continue to use the pennies they have “indefinitely,” but we all know how this will turn out. The stores, after getting used to rounding down $1.01 and $1.02 to $1 and rounding up $1.03 and $1.04 to $1.05, will stop taking the coins. Budget documents say only that businesses “are encouraged” to continue accepting them.

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Since the Americans continue to make a one-cent coin and the British continue to make the decimal penny, all the familiar expressions – penny-pinching, a penny for your thoughts, pennies from heaven, penniless, not a penny to your name – will remain current elsewhere even as they take on a nostalgic glow here. The better phrases were determinedly British anyway: penny-wise and pound-foolish (wasting money by focusing on minutiae) and in for a penny, in for a pound (willing to go the whole way).

Most of the penny expressions have been overtaken by inflation. A penny-ante operation – run on a shoestring – dates from poker games in which the opening bid was a penny. The British euphemism “spend a penny” – use the toilet – refers to the days when it cost only a penny to unlock a public convenience. In a penny arcade, it once cost a penny to play a coin-operated machine. The penny would drop and the mechanism would engage. That’s why “the penny drops” refers to a moment of sudden understanding.

As for the penny’s British nickname, “a copper” (not to be confused with a police officer), that too is a relic of the past in Canada as elsewhere. Pennies were once made entirely of copper; hence the expression “not one red cent to his name,” referring to copper’s red colour.

When Canada’s Royal Mint (later the Royal Canadian Mint) made its first domestic penny in 1908 – struck by the wife of Governor-General Earl Grey, who was the grandson of the man the tea is named after – it was still made almost entirely (95.5 per cent) of copper. But in 1997, the composition was changed to 98.4 per cent zinc, with a hint of copper plating. In 2000, the zinc was replaced by steel.

The penny probably got its name (by way of Old English penig or penning) from the same source as the Pfennig, the German coin supplanted by the euro. The cent got its name from the Latin centum, one-hundredth, and was a product of the American Revolution.

As the Americans prepared to cast off the currency of the defeated British, U.S. Founding Father Gouverneur Morris suggested in 1872 that they call the U.S. penny a cent, the way later Americans who resented France’s sane refusal to help invade Iraq in 2003 would briefly call French fries “freedom fries.” Morris’s suggestion wasn’t immediately accepted, but when the Continental Congress officially introduced the U.S. coin in 1786, it was as “one cent.”

If you are left penniless, you are cut off without a cent. But if you have two pennies, you can express an opinion – get in your two cents worth.

Author Paul Collins anticipated the Canadian move in his entry in the tongue-in-cheek 2004 book The Future Dictionary of America. He proposed the word “centing” for the “retail and banking practice of allowing customers to round up all bills and electronic transactions to the nearest five or 10 cents, with the difference donated to charitable funds. Adopted in 2010, in recognition of the devaluation of individual pennies, which verged on worthlessness, but which in aggregate proved a substantial fiscal resource.”

Indeed, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last week urged us all to donate the pennies from our penny jars to charity. Pennies from heaven, or heaven-cent?

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