also penny farthing, penny-farthing, "ineffective," 1887, from penny + farthing, the two together making but a small sum. The noun, in reference to the kind of bicycle with a small wheel in back and a big one in front (so called from the notion of different size coins) is attested by 1920.
Entries linking to pennyfarthing
English coin, Middle English peni, from Old English pening, penig, Northumbrian penning "penny," from Proto-Germanic *panninga- (source also of Old Norse penningr, Swedish pänning, Danish penge, Old Frisian panning, Old Saxon pending, Middle Dutch pennic, Dutch penning, Old High German pfenning, German Pfennig, not recorded in Gothic where skatts is used instead), a word of unknown origin.
Offa's reformed coinage on light, broad flans is likely to have begun c.760-5 in London, with an awareness of developments in Francia and East Anglia. ... The broad flan penny established by Offa remained the principal denomination, with only minor changes, until the fourteenth century. [Anna Gannon, "The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage," Oxford, 2003]
The English coin was originally set at one-twelfth of a shilling (or 240 to a Tower pound) and was of silver, later copper, then bronze. There are two plural forms: pennies of individual coins, pence collectively. In Middle English, any coin could be called a penny, and in translations it rendered various foreign coins of small denomination, especially Latin denarius, whence comes its abbreviation d.
As an American English colloquial for cent, it is recorded by 1889. In reference to nails, "a pound," denoting that 1,000 nails will weigh so much, OED says it probably is based originally on the price per 100 and persisted as prices fell.
Penny-a-liner "writer for a journal or newspaper" is attested by 1830, from their supposed rate of pay. Penny dreadful in reference to "cheap and gory fiction" dates from 1870. Phrase penny-wise and pound-foolish is recorded from c. 1600.
Penny-pincher "miserly person" is recorded from 1906 (Middle English had pinchpenny (n.) in that sense; as an adjective penny-pinching is recorded from 1858, American English). Penny loafers attested from 1960, perhaps from the fashion of slipping a penny into the slits of the bands across the facing.
"A regular penny-a-liner is a person who supplies the newspapers of the city with short articles of news, ingenious remarks upon the current topics of the day, reports of meetings, or of cases in the police offices, accidents, &c. &c., but who, observe, has no express engagement from, or any direct connexion with, any newspaper whatever. His success is wholly precarious—always uncertain. If the contributions which those persons forward for publication, in this way, are published, they are certain of payment for them at the rate of one penny, three half-pence, and in rare cases, two pence a-line, according to the importance of the subject matter supplied. ["The London Penny-a-Line System," Irish Monthly Magazine, January 1833]
Old English feorðing (Old Northumbrian feorðung) "quarter of a penny; a fourth part," a diminutive derivative of feorða "fourth" (from feower "four;" from PIE root *kwetwer- "four") + -ing "fractional part." Cognate with Old Frisian fiardeng, Middle Low German verdink, Old Norse fjorðungr, Old Danish fjerdung "a fourth part of anything."
In late Old English also a division of land, probably originally a quarter of a hide. The modern English coin first was minted under Edward I and abolished 1961. The word was used in biblical translations for Latin quadrans "quarter of a denarius."
I shall geat a fart of a dead man as soone As a farthyng of him. [Heywood, "Proverbs," 1562]
The English word is said in some dictionaries to be probably not from French, but the 1868 citations are in a French context:
The velocipedes, about which the Parisians have run mad at the present moment, are of various kinds. ... The two wheel velocipedes, the bicycles as they are styled, are intended for the male sex only, and are by far the swiftest machines. ["Supplement to the Courant," Hartford, Conn., Dec. 16, 1868].
Pierre Lallement, employee of a French carriage works, improved Macmillan's 1839 pedal velocipede in 1865 and took the invention to America. See also pennyfarthing. As a verb, from 1869.
The velocipede of 1869 was worked by treadles operating cranks on the axle oi the front wheel. This was modified in the earliest form of the bicycle by greatly increasing the relative size of the driving-wheel and bringing the rider directly over it. Later the "safety" bicycle was introduced, in which the wheels were made of equal or nearly equal size, and for the direct action upon the front wheel was substituted indirect action upon the rear wheel, by means of a chain and sprocket-wheels .... [Century Dictionary]
updated on April 22, 2020