PENNY FARTHING.

My wife and I were doing an acrostic puzzle in which one of the clues was “penny farthing” and the answer they wanted was “bicycle.” I had never heard the term, so I looked it up, and it has a wonderful explanation. OED:

A bicycle with a large front wheel and a small rear one, current from the early 1870s to the mid 1890s; an ordinary. Now hist.
[...]1910 Lotinga’s Weekly 7 May 64 The old type of machine, known as the ‘Penny-Farthing’ owing to the size of the wheels.

The Wikipedia article has a picture showing the two coins together, as well as one of the contraption itself.

Comments

  1. david waugh says:

    We’ll see what other people say but I reckon that in the UK your ignorance of this term would be thought odd, in a person of your erudition.

  2. j. del col says:

    I thought everybody knew what a Penny Farthing was.(annoying emoticon here) They were an attempt to get the maximum benefit from direct drive pedals. Mounting and dismounting one was a risky business.

  3. Me, I knew from your title you’d be writing about high wheel bicycles, but since that reflects my bicycle club and touring background I’m in no position to judge what others might know. Which sets me to wondering if “boneshaker” (another old bicycle word, also mentioned in the Wikipedia article) would have worked for you.
    “Velocipede” you’d have got, I imagine. “Ordinary” is pretty useless in that context.
    [Note: Original post rejected for "gu*de", which is part of my usual email address. Switched to another email, but curious what the issue is.]

  4. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard it. It must be because it’s your birthday. It’s as common a term to me as “boiled egg” or “top hat”.

  5. the UK your ignorance of this term would be thought odd, in a person of your erudition
    Must be a UK thing, though of course some Yank is bound to weigh in now with “I thought everyone knew that.” What can I say? I divert myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lies all undiscovered before me.

  6. Note: Original post rejected for “gu*de”, which is part of my usual email address. Switched to another email, but curious what the issue is.
    Really? I’m looking at my MT-Blacklist, and I’m not sure what you’re referring to; I’ve removed “guide.com” in case that’s causing the problem. If not, send me an e-mail (languagehat AT gmail.com) and let me know.

  7. dearieme says:

    A familiar expression to this ancient Briton, but I can still grin at your delight in finding it, in spite of the insufferable heat’n'humidity around here. Bloody July.

  8. Six comments in and no mention of The Prisoner? Shocking.

  9. I had no idea! Never heard that name.
    But now I’m wondering how we call them in Spanish… Any clue?

  10. Looks like it’s Un velocípedo.

  11. Julia, this short article in Spanish on the history of the bicycle has an 1870 picture of penny-farthings with the caption velocípedos.The Spanish WiPe shows a modern-day Ciclista montado en un velocípedo en Cracovia, Polonia. The French Wipe on bicylette shows two- and three-wheeled vélocipèdes in American in 1877. The vélocipède was also called grand-bi in France.
    So it’s now clear I never knew what velocipede originally denoted.

  12. Shucks, Crowned at the post.

  13. Six comments in and no mention of The Prisoner? Shocking.
    Yes, thanks to Hat for clearing up that old mystery of the Village logo. The old Prisoner episodes are now online here. It also clears up the mystery of Orwell’s 1984 “oranges and lemons” nursery rhyme.

    Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s
    You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s
    When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.
    When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch.

    …although where I come from, farthings does not rhyme with martins.
    And let me join everyone else in wishing Hat a joyful birthday.

  14. Here’s something odd. The Spanish Wipe on velocípedo says that it was occasionally called boneshaker in English. In some other Spanish article it was referred to as a quebrantahuesos (bone-breaker). Just now, when I tried to locate that article again, I found that quebrantahuesos is also a vernacular name for the Bearded Vulture. These are the ones who drop animal bones from a large height, in order to crack them open and get at the marrow. I saw that on TV once. Why look extraterrestrially for alien intelligence ?

  15. Perhaps farthings is a euphemism. If you replace the TH with a T and drop the G of NG, you have a perfect rhyme.
    Same sort of bowdlerization as “a kettle of warm spit”, as the US Vice Presidency was referred to by one of FDR’s VPs.

  16. For what it’s worth, this Yank had never heard it before, either. I’d always called them “high wheelers” or “those old-fashioned bicycles, y’know, with the one huge wheel and the one normal one”.

  17. a kettle of warm spit
    That’s pretty funny, I wouldn’t have thought it to be a bowdlerization, since it’s gross enough already. Nowadays the expression would itself need a new coat of paint – someone might be “uncomfortable” with it. Does American public discourse really sound like a convention of couch salesmen these days ?

  18. mollymooly says:

    I can see why the nickname “penny farthing” did not catch on in a country with sensibly small pennies and no farthings at all. But I can’t imagine “ordinary bicycle” has been a generally recognised name for the model since about 1890; for me ‘what is an ordinary bicycle better known as’ is a tough quiz question. So do Americans have a lexical gap or recognise Wikipedia’s other suggested name “high wheeler”? Not that it’s a serious gap; I suppose the prettiness of the name “penny farthing” is the main reason it’s so well remembered even though the referent, and even the metaphors, are long gone.
    In my childhood I was also delighted by the “hen and chickens” pentacycle, a penny with four farthings for extra stability, pictured near the bottom of this page.

  19. I had never heard the term

    ::flabbergasted::

  20. A boneshaker isn’t the same as a penny farthing.
    Is everyone else aware of the demonstration term “to kettle”? Apparently demonstrators at the G20 meeting in Canada were kettled by the police; in other words, they were confined to a small area and made to wait outside for several hours in hot weather, getting crosser and crosser.
    Oh, and Oranges & Lemons is an ordinary English nursery rhyme that refers to churches in the City of London.

  21. My reaction was the same as bulbul’s: it’s the icon of the greatest TV show of all time. I have a No. 6 pinback around here someplace from the days of seeing a marathon at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. (This was before VHS and significantly including Living in Harmony, which didn’t air in the States.)
    To keep it highbrow, though, I’ll mention that Interesting Times has Hobsbawm’s remembrances of the Cambridge Reds vacationing at Clough Williams-Ellis’s Portmeirion. An image the Tories aren’t above mocking. (Or their cis-Atlantic counterparts who have ever heard of any of those people.)

  22. So what is a penny farthing in euros?

  23. Thanks, M. That was one of the many bits of that book I skipped (I don’t trust Hobsbawm); now I read it, it turns out to be one of the best-written.
    If you were at all interested in cars, you could be driving round in a Caterham 7. I saw one in Norway last week.

  24. A penny farthing is 1.25 old pence. There are 240 old pence in a pound. ₤I is 1.213 euros. There are 291d (old pence) in a euro. There are 232 penny farthings in a euro.
    I suppose you think I’m not busy.

  25. Christophe Strobbe says:

    @John Emerson
    Maybe Measuring Worth – UK Earnings and Prices can help.

  26. This yank knows all those names for a high-wheeler (including “boneshaker,” though I agree it really applies to a different bicycle version), –but I’ve already said my background’s unusual.
    I can attest that Ordinary has persisted as a common name for this sort of bike amongst the folks who actually care about these things. That’s opposed to “Safety Bicycle,” which describes what’s recognizably what we all think of as a bicycle. I think it’s a case of the enthusiasts preserving (or, quite likely, reviving) the terminology of the times. The folks I know who ride Ordinaries tend to have serious antiquarian tendencies, rather like the folks who play baseball by 1880s rules.
    Hat: The “guide.com” rule is obviously the issue. But I’m quite certain the message only told me “guide.”

  27. Trond Engen says:

    In Norway the velocipede is known by the inspired folk etymology veltepetter “vaulting pete”.

  28. I would have thought that most Americans would know “penny-farthing” ONLY as the bicycle, since “farthing” is meaningless to Americans. I don’t think that’s just because I live ten miles from Davis, either. I’m pretty sure I knew it as the bicycle long before I moved here.

  29. This Australian remembers being marvelled by the wonders of penny farthings in primary school.
    Although I’m supposing it was in jest, I don’t think it’s a euphemism. I think it’s more a comment on the respective sizes of the coins being similar to the respective sizes of the wheels.

  30. .431 euros, then. A bit less than half a metric penny, sort of the way a pound is a bit less than half a kilo (.453). What’s a measly .22 among friends?

  31. “Bucket of warm spit”, not “kettle”. What John Nance Garner actually said was “bucket of warm piss”, of course, and he was pleased to refer to the reporter who censored it as a “pantywaist”.

  32. Thank you very much, AJP and Grumbly! Velocípedo, yes, now I remember. I had to work earlier (and I was a bit lazy to look it up by myself, that’s true). It’s not such a funny name like PENNY FARTHING, isn’t it?
    ¡Feliz cumpleaños, LH!

  33. By which I meant .00431 euros, of course.

  34. @ Antonios: Sorry i didn’t indicate what i was referring to. My comment about euphemisms referred to the line of the song quoted by nijma:
    You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s
    All the other lines have perfect internal rhymes, which suggests that farthings here is a bowdlerization. Dunno if it’s true–but I think it’s ben trovato.
    @John Cowan: yes of course the quote is bucket …. I have no idea where my typing fingers got kettle from.

  35. “Cellulite body wraps” is an unfortunate product description. They sound like a kind of Halloween outfit in which you can step out as The Fat Lady. What happened to “anti-” in marketing copy ? Are people no longer “comfortable” with products that have a negative attitude ?

  36. significantly including Living in Harmony, which didn’t air in the States.
    Why would that episode of the Prisoner not air in the U.S.? Unless it was the hokey “Western” set that looks more like a French chateau.
    And if both farthings and penny farthings are unknown in the U.S., do other countries have “dime bags” without having dimes?

  37. Richard J says:

    People tell me, so I understand, that the product you might be thinking of is sold in eighths of an ounce in the UK.

  38. Richard J says:

    Homer: Hello. I am Homer Simpson, or as some of you wags have dubbed me, Father Goose. You know, everybody believed the worst about me right away; nobody cares that I didn’t do it. But I didn’t! OK, look: I’ve done some bad things in my life, but harassing women is not one of them. [softly] Like one time, we were having this race with the stupid old timey bicycle with the big wheel in front, so I figure, “We’ll see about that!” So I get this big chunk of cinderblock, and –
    [Later]
    The doorbell rings.
    [Homer answers the door]
    Man: [on pennyfarthing bicycle] So, er, you don’t like the old-time bikes, huh?
    [kicks Homer in the face, rides off]

  39. Why would that episode of the Prisoner not air in the U.S.?
    At the time, CBS made some lame-ass excuse about drugs. But it is generally acknowledged that it was because of Vietnam.
    Remember, this is running as a summer replacement in 1968 & 1969. The show was obviously subversive, even if they couldn’t put their finger on how. And that episode is set in make-believe America, not make-believe Europe.
    It’s also one of the most violent (relative to contemporary prime time, of course, and less news coverage from Detroit or Chicago or My Lai or Ohio).

  40. Bathrobe says:

    Another example of why you can’t take for granted that “perfectly ordinary English” will automatically be understood throughout the whole English-speaking world.
    My first intimation of this kind of thing was when an American I knew had never heard of ‘equestrian events’. I was dumbfounded at the time, but it brought me to a slow realisation of how important upbringing, background, surrounding culture etc. are in determining ease of communication.

  41. DeeXtrovert says:

    Languagehat: As someone who once expressed an admiration for X-Ray Spex, how can you not know the term from Poly Styrene’s 1980 “Bicycle Song?” It’s right there!

  42. Noetica says:

    This Australian remembers being marvelled by the wonders of penny farthings in primary school.

    This one remembers them from earliest times also. Surprised it’s not anglo-universal.

  43. As someone who once expressed an admiration for X-Ray Spex, how can you not know the term from Poly Styrene’s 1980 “Bicycle Song?” It’s right there!
    Heh. I’m afraid it was Lora Logic rather than Poly Styrene whose post-Spex career I followed, so I’m not familiar with “Bicycle Song.”

  44. I certainly knew this one – I lived for several years on Pennyfarthing Drive in Vancouver, BC. I’m not sure if I knew the meaning of the word before I lived there or not, but I think I did. Anyway, it’s a great word.

Speak Your Mind

*