Friday, April 5, 2013

A Penny for your Thoughts

Yesterday I spied a shiny penny in a grocery store parking lot. I picked it up, a normal reaction for me, but apparently fewer and fewer people stop and bend over to retrieve the lowly penny. It just isn’t worth the effort.
In fact, a controversy is brewing: should the U.S. stop minting the one cent coin, commonly called a penny?  It costs the government more than one cent in materials and energy to produce a penny. Canada has decided to stop production, and many in the U.S. are calling on us to follow Canada’s lead.  

America is rich with penny-related idioms and cultural references

Pennies may not make economic sense, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the penny. The coin with Abraham Lincoln on one side is intricately woven into the English language and American cultural fabric.

A penny saved is a penny earned,” advised one of America’s Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin. He touts thrift as an important value, and it certainly contributed to the popularity of piggy banks – porcelain or plastic pigs with slots for children to deposit pennies.  Franklin would have approved of the British saying: “penny wise, pound foolish,” wherein a decision to save a small amount upfront (such as refusing to change the oil in one’s car) leads to a very expensive problem later on.

A penny doesn’t get you any respect

If a business endeavor is “penny ante,” you know it’s hardly worth the effort. Moreover,, if it costs you only a penny join (ante) a poker game, your winnings will likely be very small. Speaking of gambling, it’s hard now to find “penny slots,” machines in Las Vegas requiring only pennies to play.  In the 1930s a penny arcade meant a venue where coin-operated devices could be played. Today the webcomic, PennyArcade, has kept the word penny in the collective culture!

Ever overhear a guy called a “bad penny?” He is probably out to borrow money or headed down the road to ruin. Perhaps we should have empathy, though, since he may have been “cut off without a penny” by his family. Without funds he can only eye from the store window expensive items costing a pretty penny.”

Pennies from Heaven

If the penny disappears from pockets and the American experience, I wonder if our grandchildren will relate to the song, Pennies from Heaven, recorded by Bing Crosby, Billie Holladay, and many other jazz greats.

“Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven
Don't cha know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?
You'll find your fortune fallin' all over town
Be sure that your umbrella
Is upside down

Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers
If you want the things you love, you must have showers.
So when you hear it thunder
 Don't run under a tree
There'll be pennies from heaven for you and me.”

So, the possible demise of the lowly penny has implications beyond government cost-savings. When there are no more pennies, I believe our language will be poorer for it.

A penny for your thoughts.


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