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Re: Bent or Bad Penny

Posted by Pdianek on November 15, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Bent or Bad Penny posted by ESC on November 15, 2003

: : I came across a refgerence to a bad penny in a book (The Bone Pedlar, Sylvian Hamilton). The context is a discussion between a father visiting his daughter in her convent in 1210:
: : "I prayed for you all the time. I told Our Lady all about you. I bent a penny to her for you. .... It didn't work. You caught a cold. ..... Do you think it might have been a bad penny?"
: : I've heard the term, "Queer as a bent penny", and never known its derivation.
: : Can anyone give me some informed background on this?
: : Thanks in advance. Wal

: I'd never heard the "bent penny" phrase either. But I like it.

: "BAD PENNY -- The phrase usually is heard in this country (U.S.) as 'A bad penny always turns up,' meaning that a no-good person can be counted upon to come back again and again. The expression was originally English and the unit of currency referred to was the shilling. Sir Walter Scott, in one of his early nineteenth-century novels, whereto: 'Bring back Darsie? Little doubt of that. The bad shilling is sure enough to come back again.'" From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).

Here's a discussion of "bending" a penny, from www-cm.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk. The penny being discussed is one of Aethelred's silver ones:

No-one knows the exact value of an Anglo-Saxon penny, although an earlier tenth-century law code says that you could buy a good racehorse for 120 pennies, a cow for 20 pennies and a sheep for 5 pennies. A silver penny in AD 1000 might buy the same as about £10-£20 today.

The small gouges on the reverse of the coin are known as "peck" marks and were made with a knife to test the purity of the silver. The Anglo-Saxons would have had no need to do this, as the bust of Æthelred on the coin was a royal guarantee of its value: this coin could be exchanged for a penny worth of goods. The Vikings, however, only saw the coin for its silver content and *pecked* or *bent* it to find out how soft, and therefore how pure it was.

So a "bent penny" might be one with softer metal (lead?) within, coated with silver and not nearly as valuable as a pure silver one -- such a penny would make a raiding Viking *most* disgruntled.

On the other hand, bending pennies is often regarded as creating luck. Here's an account (from Sheffield, home of SHU, which hosts this site): On the night of 8th October 1960 the good people of Sheffield turned out in force in the pouring rain to say goodbye to the city's last trams (until supertram came along 30 years later!). On that night many thousands of them put old pennies on the line for the trams to run over and distort to make a unique momento of the occasion. This activity can be seen in many of the photographs taken on that famous night.

If the father bent a penny for his daughter's welfare when he prayed to Mary, perhaps what he did was bend one and then keep it or bury it somewhere -- a form of sacrifice, since the penny would then be useless to him as cash.