bills, notes

At the post office today, I needed to pay 64p for stamps, but only had 63p in change. The following conversation ensued:

Me: I'm afraid I'll have to give you a big bill. A really big bill.
PostOfficeMan: That's ok, we like big bills.
Now, hearing an Englishman call £20 a bill rather than a note made me
reali{s/z}e that I'd said the wrong word:
Me: I mean, a large note!
POM: I know what you mean. We call them notes, but they tend to call them bills in America--oh, and Canada, Canada.
I took his eagerness to mention Canada as further evidence of the aforementioned fear of Canadians going bonkers when assumed to be American. (I should say that while I find these conversations amusing, I don't blame Canadians at all for resenting being assumed to be American. However, since Canadians don't seem to leave their country without maple leaf flags sewn onto all of their outerwear, it is hard to mistake them for Americans.)

But a few words on money. Americans (and Canadians!) have particular words for their coins: penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢), quarter (25¢), and in Canada loony for the $1 coin. The British mostly don't have names for the coins. Presumably this is because they had nice names for units of currency that almost all became obsolete with the introduction of decimali{z/s}ation in the early 1970s. So, don't go looking here for sixpence and guineas, they don't exist anymore. One might say that a nickname for the pound coin is quid, but that is really a nickname for the amount (on a par with American buck for dollar), rather than for the coin.

The copper coins (collectively known as coppers, which is also slang for policemen--by a different etymology) do have names, presumably because these units survived decimali{s/z}ation: penny (1p) and tuppence (2p) (although they were worth different amounts in the decimal system, so were, for a time, called new penny/pence). Pence is the plural of penny, so it's technically incorrect to say 1 pence, but more and more people do. The ha'penny (pronounced hay-p'nny), or half-penny, is no longer in circulation as a coin, but remains in circulation in some idioms and place names. My friends' mothers coached them: Keep your hand on your ha'penny--that is, don't let anyone in your knickers (US: panties).

On the other hand, the British have names for two notes/bills, the self-explanatory fiver and tenner. I tend to remember to use the British term too late and say things like "Have you got a five...R?" I'd call these the names of the notes/bills, rather than slang terms, as they are not at all stylistically marked in the way that saying a fin (=$5) or sawbuck ($10) would be in the US. There are no similar names for larger bills--i.e. no *twentier. While US bills/notes are sometimes called by the name of the person (usually president) pictured on them, all the UK Bank of England notes have the reigning monarch on the front, and the people on the back change from time to time, and thus aren't so firmly associated with a particular denomination.

Here's a site on British money slang that may be of interest, if you like that sort of thing.


  1. Fiver is beginning to turn up in AmE, though it sounds bizarre and out-of-context to my ears. It's not that I'm not familiar with the term--I read tons of British authors and watch an inordinate amount of PBS, which carries BBC programming. However, to hear Joe Frat Guy in an Arby's commercial talk about how much food he can get for a "fiver" makes my brain ache.

  2. In Oz the notes are different colours so they're sometimes referred to by colour. I once tried using the personages on our notes (Lizzie is only on the fiver - lowest note =) but it failed miserably. Most Aussies don't know who's on them.

    Salesgirl: Will you be paying by credit card?
    Me: No, I'll be using three Melbas
    SG: * Blank look *
    Me: Three greens
    SG: * blank look *
    Me: Three one-hundred dollar bills
    SG: Ah...excellent.

    Actually happened.

  3. There is a slang term for a £20 note which I think is used in drugs slang.... I think it's 'purple' or something similar, but I could be really wrong.

  4. The notes are different colo(u)rs here too, but I've never heard anyone name them by colo(u)r--possibly because they are funny colo(u)rs. Is the fiver blue or green? Is the tenner orange or yellow? Requires a judg(e)ment call.

  5. hm, I was contradicted on my last point before I even made it! I haven't heard purple, but that's because I'm such an upstanding (non-)citizen. Is a £50 a 'red'? (Not that you see those often.) I stick to my point about the other ones being hard-to-describe colo(u)rs.

  6. I've heard fiver in AmE, too. I've only heard Southerners say it, so maybe it's a regionalism, but I don't know for sure.

    And now I will link to a reference in the form of song lyrics while simultaneously outing myself as a redneck (PDF file, about 22k):

  7. Wikipedia is very good on Dame Nellie Melba, including a picture of the $100 note. I love the way it has 'Specimen' written across it as if we were going to print it and cut it out: Anyway, I'm wondering off the point...

    My comment on notes and colours is that I can't tell ones from fives in the US and heaven help me if I ever had a fifty...perhaps the ubiquitous tipping practices of the States have their origins in gambling: any note as long as it's green.

  8. The best thing about American (er, US) money is that since all the bills are the same size and the same color, you can take a twenty and put it on top of a bunch of ones, and look much richer than you really are ...

    That's also the worst thing. :-)

  9. The new U.S. $10 still has green ink, but the paper is sort of a peachy color... it was very disconcerting the first time I saw one. It didn't look like legal tender.

  10. Actually, it now occurs to me that there is a word for a one-dollar bill: a single, as in Have you got a five? I only have singles.

  11. "The copper coins ... do have names, presumably because these units survived decimali{s/z}ation: penny (1p) and tuppence (2p) (although they were worth different amounts in the decimal system, so were, for a time, called new penny/pence)."

    Although Lady Bracknell does still occasionally hear the amount of money represented by the 1p piece (as opposed to the coin itself) being described as a "penny", she has never heard either the 2p piece, or the sum it represents, being referred to as "tuppence".

    (Indeed, even in pre-decimal times, there was no such thing as a coin to the value of two old pence. Although there was, of course, the delightful and much-missed "thruppenny bit", which was a coin of considerable character.)

    She must regretfully confirm that the majority of those of her countrymen who were born post-decimalisation have failed to grasp the simple fact that "pence" is the plural form of "penny", and that she is therefore reduced to grinding her teeth with rage every time a spotty adolescent at a till mumbles the words, "and that's one pence change."

  12. Thanks Lady B. I take your point that tuppence can't be a pre-decimali{s/z}ation coin name, just an amount name. But it is sometimes used to refer to the coin too, as in the following example:

    "To explain, when computer processors are made they are built on circular ‘wafers’, usually around the size of a large dinner plate and the thickness of a tuppence." (from b3ta qotw)

    So, tuppence originally meant the amount, but is sometimes used for the coin, while American coin names sometimes also name the amount. For example, you can say that something costs a quarter, which refers to the amount, rather than the coin. But if you ask someone if they have a quarter, they might answer "No, but I have two dimes and a nickel".

  13. Lady Bracknell stands corrected.

    Still, it is odd that anyone would refer to the 2p coin as a "tuppence" when tuppence as an amount refers to two old (i.e. pre-decimal) pence and is therefore by no means the equivalent of 2p.

    Lady Bracknell had also meant to say that she recalls the concern expressed by the more conservative press at the time when decimal coinage was introduced about the fact that nice people would have to use (or possibly only hear) a rather vulgar word for "urinate" every time they paid for anything with cash.

  14. If Lady Bracknell thinks pee 'urinate' is vulgar, she has another think coming. In the circles I travel in, very much including my mother (now deceased) and my wife, that is the polite term.

    There is a story about former President Eisenhower using the word manure in a speech; when his wife was urged to make him change it to fertilizer, she replied "You have no idea how hard it was to make him say manure!"

    Finally, I've always been surprised that shilling and florin did not survive the transition either as names for coins or names for amounts, since they correctly represent traditional coins (5p and 10p respectively).

  15. The notes are different colo(u)rs here too, but I've never heard anyone name them by colo(u)r--possibly because they are funny colo(u)rs. Is the fiver blue or green? Is the tenner orange or yellow? Requires a judg(e)ment call.

    My father occasionally used to use the phrase 'green drinking voucher' for a fiver (or 'brown drinking voucher' for a tenner). This was back in the day when I was too young to go out drinking, so back in the mists of time that were the late eighties and early nineties.

    It was never a blue drinking voucher...

  16. In addition to loonies, we Canadians also have toonies ($2 coins). The $1 coin was introduced first and soon acquired the nickname loony because of the loon on it. Then the $2 coin came alone and people called it the "toony" because it's "two" dollars and it rhymes with "loony". Like Americans, we also use the word "buck" to refer to the amount $1.

  17. But toony is not nearly as widespread as loony yet to refer to the piece.

  18. When I was a student in Europe an embarrassingly large number of years ago, I was informed that the reason "...Canadians don't seem to leave their country without maple leaf flags sewn onto all of their outerwear" was because the reputation of Americans abroad was so bad--annoying parochial boors, basically--that they were simply going to great lengths to avoid being mistaken for us. They helpfully advised me that if I wanted better reactions from waiters, shopkeepers and the like, that I would be well-advised to sew on some maple leaves and claim to be Canadian as well. I never tested the theory.

  19. "all the UK bills have the reigning monarch on the front".

    This is incorrect. Notes produced by banks in the UK other than the Bank of England do NOT have the Queen on the front.

  20. You are absolutely right. Duly corrected.

  21. Our (Canadian) bills have different colours but I've never heard anybody refer to them by colour, they are just X dollar bills, or occasionally "an X".

    Also, I think pretty much everyone uses "toonie", and were as far back as 2008 when the above message was posted. But then, maybe they have different usages out East, I'm on the West coast.

  22. Anyone familiar with the Australian expression 'to bet Sydney to a brick' may be interested to know that the 'brick' in question was the £10 note which was an orange- red colour, similar to the current $20 ( in use since 1966).
    Does anyone know of any other named Oz banknotes?

  23. I'd disagree with the poster who said Canadians don't use "toonie" as often as "loonie" (I've never heard anyone from any part of Canada refer to it as anything else; it'd sound odd if someone said, "Do you have a two dollar coin?"). Also, IMO most of us would spell both with the -ie ending. Loonie=coin, loony=crazy

  24. Does any one in britin say feed the birds mate tuppence a bag


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)