Mind your language

At sixes and sevens about seven and six

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

Someone on the wireless was talking about marrying in the Liberty of Newgate before the Marriage Act of 1753, and she said it would cost ‘Seven shillings, sixpence’. It made me realise that knowing of pounds, shillings and pence is not to recapture the language of the world in which the units were used. I would have said (not in 1753, granted): ‘Seven shillings and sixpence’, or simply ‘Seven and six’.

If there were pounds before the shillings, I’d have said: ‘Nineteen pounds, seven and six’. I’ve just looked up Mr Micawber’s famous dictum in David Copperfield, and this is how he put it: ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’

I had forgotten, which makes it far more amusing, that he went on: ‘The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and — and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!’

Not only that, but the narrator added: ‘To make his example the more impressive, Mr Micawber drank a glass of punch with an air of great enjoyment and satisfaction, and whistled the College Hornpipe.’ The language is almost Wodehousean.

Despite his careless ways, Mr Micawber was aware of commercial language, which is why he inserts ought, or in more modern terms nought, to stand for a zero or dash in the column of imaginary accounts he is casting up. With our decimal currency we happily say things like ‘one, sixty-three’ (for £1.63), but for sums like £1.06 we say ‘one pound and sixpence’ (not ‘one, six’). A linguistic mishap in 1971, at decimalisation, was losing the distinction between one penny and several pence. The catachrestic one (new) pence took root. This was surprising, given how often we’d used such monetary language. In 1971, we were trained to say two (new) pence and six (new) pence, so the word sixpence (with the stress on six) became rare, and people forgot that twopence was pronounced ‘tuppence’. It does sound absurd when someone reads from an old book: ‘I don’t care two-pence.

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