US coinage querstion: why "FIVE CENTS" and not "5¢" or "5 CENTS"?

To someone not familiar with the English language, US coinage can seem rather awkward. Except for the penny, coin sizes have remained unchanged since the late 1700s, corresponding to the amount of precious metal that the coin once included; the penny (1¢) and nickel (5¢) coins are larger than the dime (10¢) coins.

The one thing about US coins that is different than coinage in the rest of the world, though, is the way the denomination is indicated. The denomination is written out as a word, not the number. We have:


… and nor 1¢, 5¢,10¢, 25¢, 50¢, or $1, or “1 CENT”, “5 CENTS”, “10 CENTS” and so on.

Why is the denomination of US coinage written out as a word, instead of indicated a number as with most coinage on the planet?

No one said the folks at the Treasury Dept. have brains :smiley:

But honestly I don’t know.

I suspect it was partly the influence of the English system of pounds, shillings, and pence. Given the prices of the late 1700s, it might have been though that it would be useful to have a smaller unit–a dime–that could be used in the everyday commerce of smaller transactions, just as shillings used to be used before the time of inflation, (and decimalization), as a unit for small purchases in its own right. I’m fairly sure that at least until 1968, Brits might even use the shilling unit in quoting a price that was over a pound…as in “This record costs 30 shillings.”

They might have actually thought that people would quote prices in dimes, as in “that hammer costs 3 1/2 dimes”, but as far as I know it never caught on.

The dime…with only four more you can make a phone call. With only 115 more you can get a couple of cheap meals at a fast food joint.

The U.S. Treasury…bringing us ridiculously inflated currency and coinage since 1970.

One idea would be that coins are really small, and a word in a small type size is easier to read than a single symbol or a number.

Regardless, I do wonder about the “ONE DIME”, and why it isn’t “TEN CENTS”.

Oh, forgot to add.

As far as I know, no U.S. currency or coinage has ever used the $ or cent symbol (which I don’t know how to type). Nor have numerals ever been used instead of spelled out numbers. Somewhere among my Habseligkeiten I have a $5 goldpiece, minted in 1900, which used the wording “FIVE D.”

Even when they had to save space, they still didn’t want to use numerals, or introduce the dollar sign.

Again, I think it was the shilling influence…instead of pounds, shillings, and pence, we decided to have dollars, dimes, and cents.

As the OP noted, the nickel is odd in being the only multicent denomination to use the word “cents”. Before nickels were introduced in the 1800s, there were “half-dimes” which were very small coins made of silver. Following the usual custom, and perhaps supporting my contention above, they were marked “half-dime” and not “five cents”; so when the nickel came into being, perhaps it was believed to be necessary to use the “five cents” marking to assure the public that the government wasn’t trying to pull a fast one by replacing a small silver coin with a big nickel one.

There’s a grammar guideline that says if a number can be spelled out in one or two words, you spell it out, otherwise you give the numeral. For instance: Four out of five dentists surveyed make more than $100,000 a year.

Like all grammar guidelines, there are exceptions, and it seems that the need to indicate the value of the coin in a way that non-English speakers can understand would warrant an exception. But maybe the people who design U.S. coins are averse to making an exception.

Consider the metric system. We have ten millimeters and one centimeter, and use which ever we consider appropriate for the situation.

The word “cent” was not an American -er- “coinage”, that is to say: like the $ symbol, the word “cent” was already in wide use in other places when we sought a name (The Master has already spoken on this) Similarly, “dime” was already a word -and a unit [Middle English, tenth part, from Old French disme, from Latin decima (pars), tenth (part), from decem, ten]- well before the US was founded

These usages were already in play in 1790, when Thomas Jefferson suggested a decimal US currency (the same year that Louis XVI authorized investigations to reform of French weights and measures resulting in the metric system). Jefferson based his proposal on Simon Stevin’s suggestion in 1585 (in a book called “The Tenth” which advocated decimalizing everything, including circular (arc) measure). Decimal “metrification” is considered to have started in earnest with Gabriel Mouton, a French vicar, around 1670.

The word “dime” had a different connotation in 1790. today it’s just a noun, like nickel, but once it was seen more as a unit, like decimeter.

So has the US dollar had ridiculously more inflation than other currencies in the world since 1970?

Got a cite for that?

‘Cause it doesn’t seem to match with my understanding that the US dollar has been fairly stable compared to most currencies in the world. On a friends’ recent trip to South America, people there seemed quite eager to exchange their currency for US dollars.

Don’t get offended, pay attention. The point was that we’re still using coins in denominations too small to be very practical, and many other countries are not. And our coins seem to indicate the relics of an age in which a dime was treated as a separate unit of currency, due to its high value.

And it’s no longer valuable enough to make purchases with. Note that Australia’s gotten rid of their pennies, and (before the Euro changeover) I only ever ran into one peseta coins in Spain when changing money - stores just didn’t use them. Same goes with Portugal’s one escudo coins.

He was not insulting America. Take a deep breath, and it’ll all be ok.

To avoid confusion:

5 by itself is by default is considered by most to mean five dollars as opposed to .05 which is obviously five cents. 5 and .05 can be confused, especially if one expects the dollar sign to be used with dollars only. 5

I’d noticed the “spelled out” numbers before, but hadn’t thought about how awkward it is for non-English speakers - especially that Quarter Dollar! I have to read all the money in foreign countries, and it’s almost always in numerals. Good lord, I know the numbers to ten in a bunch of languages, but I don’t think I know “quarter” in any of them!

Absolutely what I meant. I’ve been on about this a lot recently, not only due to my recent realization that all fifty State Quarters wouldn’t be enough take a family to Mickey D’s, and also 'cause I saw a 10-Eurocent piece that my stepdaughter brought back…slightly smaller than a U.S. cent and worth over 12 times as much.

If we’re not going to have practical currency maybe we shouldn’t have any at all. Maybe we should just do everything by bank cards, though I realize that does open a whole other can of worms, what with privacy issues.

An interesting question, since in the days of silver and gold coinage it seems to have been anticipated that coins would circulate in more than one country. Maybe it was the validity of the general assumption that coins that looked to be about the same size were worth about the same amount, provided they were of the same metal. So a British sovereign was worth about as much as a $5 gold piece, being about the same size; and a Mexican peso, being slightly smaller than a US dollar and somewhat lower in silver percentage, worth accordingly less but still accepted for that value north of the border. Moving down the scale, we would have come to marks, francs, and U.S. quarter dollars, all about the same size, and at one time fairly close in value. Since no well-respected governments were issuing fake money, you could go by look-and-feel.

As an odd sidebar, I read an account, whose name escapes me, of a free black American, around 1840, who lived in the north, but somehow got shanghaied into slavery. PBS did a dramatization of it, and I read the book because I liked the show, but now I can’t remember his name. Anyway, there were constant references to shillings (!)…and this was in the United States, sixty-odd years after the Revolution!

The “dime” is actually the unit of value, and only by extension the name of the coin worth that value. The term is statutory:

31 U.S.C. § 5101. The term “dime” (originally “disme”) has been around since the Coinage Act of 1792:

Half-dimes and half-cents have obviously fallen into desuetude, but the other coins worth a dollar and less have kept the names that the original legislation gave them.

Oy do I long for that day. Especially if it could be built into my palm pilot. Just point it at the coke machine, press the button, and out pops my beverage. A week ago I ended up late for work because I forgot quarters to pay for parking, and I ended up driving around for half an hour before I found a bank that was open. I long for the day when we have a truly wired society.

It wasn’t always so. Let’s take just a few examples(there are more).

If you look at the half dollars, starting in 1836, they plainly say on the reverse “50 cents.” This continued for the halves from 1836o-1839. It was the choice of the engraver at the US Mint.

The quarter dollars struck from 1815-1838 clearly said “25 c.” on the reverse.

The “dimes” struck between 1809-1837 said “10 c.” on the reverse.

So, it was the engravers choice, probably.

The question might be better asked, "why did the mint engraver, starting in and about the late 1830’s decide to spell out the denomination. My guess is that it was a design decision, nothing else. Artistic license.

The shield nickels, struck between 1866 and 1883, had a big old “5” in the middle of the reverse, with the “cents” at the bottom.

The two cent pieces had “2/Cents” on the reverse.

Excalibre said

Many other countries ARE using very small denomination coins, as the US does.

For instance, let’s take the new Euro countries. They all use as their smallest coin denomination the “one cent Euro.” It has a value of about 1.7 US CENTS. That is pretty small.

And then when foreign tourists visit us, they’d get a sort of debit card thingy charged up with as many dollars as they wanted to buy, and be able to get more at any bank if they needed to. Back home, they could have their own banks convert them back into euros or whatever.

Most British coins have both the number and the words spelt out.The pound has just words ONE POUND on.If you get hold of an original 1971/2/3 coin,then they have ONE NEW PENNY or TWO NEW PENCE on them

Minor nitpick…I think the eurocent is only worth about 1.27 American cents, but more importantly, is much smaller than a U.S. cent. Also, not all countries use the 1 Eurocent denomination, do they?

Secondly, low value coins, in themselves, are not necessarily a liability. What makes them a liability, and to my mind rather an embarrasment, is when there are no high-value coins to go with them. High value coins add usefulness to the low value ones, because when the coins in your pocket can actually buy something, you’re more apt to use those low valued ones to make exact change, thereby spending them and keeping them active in the economy. But in this country, where the largest coin in common circulation can buy just one fortieth of a movie ticket for one person, we’re not really using them; instead we’re breaking paper bills for virtually the smallest purchases, accumulating pocketsful of change, and then complaining that we don’t like to carry coins.

I was in Germany before the Pre-Euro era, and they actually had pfennigs. Ridiculously small, and worth only about half of a U.S. cent. But they didn’t accumulate in my pocket because I found it was always easy to get rid of them. I’d buy something that cost, say, 3.51 DM, pull the mark pieces from my pocket, and I could use a pfennig to avoid getting four in change.