Quints or Semitenths.

My wife and I are reading Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds at night, and we’ve gotten to Volume 2, Chapter 55, which is called “Quints Or Semitenths.” This refers to Plantagenet Palliser’s cherished scheme to create a five-farthing penny (which, I now discover, was an actual proposal); I thought this passage near the start of the chapter was linguistically enjoyable enough to share:

The five-farthing bill had been laid upon the table on a Tuesday, and was to be read the first time on the following Monday week. On the Wednesday Lady Glencora had written to the duke, and had called in Hertford Street. On the following Sunday she was at Matching, looking after the duke;–but she returned to London on the Tuesday, and on the Wednesday there was a little dinner at Mr. Palliser’s house, given avowedly with the object of further friendly discussion respecting the new Palliser penny. The prime minister was to be there, and Mr. Bonteen, and Barrington Erle, and those special members of the Government who would be available for giving special help to the financial Hercules of the day. A question, perhaps of no great practical importance, had occurred to Mr. Palliser,–but one which, if overlooked, might be fatal to the ultimate success of the measure. There is so much in a name,–and then an ounce of ridicule is often more potent than a hundredweight of argument. By what denomination should the fifth part of a penny be hereafter known? Some one had, ill-naturedly, whispered to Mr. Palliser that a farthing meant a fourth, and at once there arose a new trouble, which for a time bore very heavily on him. Should he boldly disregard the original meaning of the useful old word; or should he venture on the dangers of new nomenclature? October, as he said to himself, is still the tenth month of the year, November the eleventh, and so on, though by these names they are so plainly called the eighth and ninth. All France tried to rid itself of this absurdity, and failed. Should he stick by the farthing; or should he call it a fifthing, a quint, or a semitenth? “There’s the ‘Fortnightly Review’ comes out but once a month,” he said to his friend Mr. Bonteen, “and I’m told that it does very well.” Mr. Bonteen, who was a rational man, thought the “Review” would do better if it were called by a more rational name, and was very much in favour of “a quint.” Mr. Gresham had expressed an opinion, somewhat off-hand, that English people would never be got to talk about quints, and so there was a difficulty. A little dinner was therefore arranged, and Mr. Palliser, as was his custom in such matters, put the affair of the dinner into his wife’s hands. When he was told that she had included Lord Fawn among the guests he opened his eyes. Lord Fawn, who might be good enough at the India Office, knew literally nothing about the penny. “He’ll take it as the greatest compliment in the world,” said Lady Glencora. “I don’t want to pay Lord Fawn a compliment,” said Mr. Palliser. “But I do,” said Lady Glencora. And so the matter was arranged.

It was a very nice little dinner. Mrs. Gresham and Mrs. Bonteen were there, and the great question of the day was settled in two minutes, before the guests went out of the drawing-room. “Stick to your farthing,” said Mr. Gresham.

“I think so,” said Mr. Palliser.

“Quint’s a very easy word,” said Mr. Bonteen.

“But squint is an easier,” said Mr. Gresham, with all a prime minister’s jocose authority.

“They’d certainly be called cock-eyes,” said Barrington Erle.

“There’s nothing of the sound of a quarter in farthing,” said Mr. Palliser.

“Stick to the old word,” said Mr. Gresham. And so the matter was decided […]

I think we all know “rational men” like Mr. Bonteen.


  1. Farthings ceased to be legal tender when I was about 4, but they were still in circulation for a while after that and I have a recollection (possibly delusional) of using them to buy sweets. I also think we all understood that a farthing was a fourth of a penny, although I suppose that if Mr Palliser had got his proposal through (spoiler alert — he didn’t) we would have got used to them being a fifth of a penny.

    Incidentally, I just finished the Palliser novels and I have to say the final installment was a bit of a let-down — almost nothing about politics, all about the Duke’s children and their marriage prospects. But Trollope is as acute as ever on the social and financial pressures involved in the marriages of the rich and famous, the rich but not famous, and the well-pedigreed but not rich.

  2. I believe there is an US/British difference of meaning over ‘table’. IIRC to table a Bill in the UK Parliament is to put it forward to the House while in Congress it means withdrawing it.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    The mathematical part of my mind is screaming that a semitenth would of course be a twentieth, not a fifth. Are there any reasonably parallel examples of “semi” actually meaning double?

    A search for “fifthing” gets me a bunch of texts where it means the act of dividing into fifths (or some meaning clearly derived from that); adding “farthing” gets me a few copies and discussions of the passage quoted here, as well as an article on Ouisconsin (who was the local Ill Bethisad expert again?) which suggests that the etymologically correct term could perhaps be “fithing”.

    Of course the etymologically correct term to the other side, from “third”, still exists – it is riding, as in East Riding of Yorkshire (though in a non-geographic context it might well have ended up as something like “thriding”).

    I like the idea of “quint”, however.

    (Incidentally, is this the Gresham of Gresham’s Law fame, or someone entirely different?)

  4. At risk of Bonteenism: a semitenth is surely a twentieth(?) It should be bitenth, or some such. (Nervousness about biannual vs. biennial.)

    All France tried to rid itself of this absurdity, and failed. But I find those names for divisions of the year, so much more poetic. (By Bonteen, there should have been ten of them.) Brumaire connects right up with Hat’s previous post.

  5. Incidentally, is this the Gresham of Gresham’s Law fame, or someone entirely different?

    No, this is an entirely fictional character.

    Brumaire connects right up with Hat’s previous post.


  6. Local ill Bethisad expert waves his hand.

  7. January First-of-May, that would depend on whether you take it as semi+tenth or semiten+th.

  8. Well, since a tithe is a tenth, how about a double-tithe?

  9. Jonathan D says:

    Never mind bi(a/e)nnial, what about bimonthly?

    Although I have to agree with January First-of-May, since I find semiten-th much more unnatural than either version of bimonthly.

  10. Planty Pal should have stuck with four farthings to the penny, but 1000 farthings (20s 10d) to the … well, the New Pound, perhaps. Or New Guinea would be closer.

  11. January First-of-May says:

    Or use the Jersey model and assign 12.5d (or however it’s spelled) per shilling, which would also give 1000 farthings to a pound. Could be a bit complicated though.
    A nice decimal idea would have been to call 1/10 of a penny (this unit actually existed in some colonies) a “mite”; two mites to a farthing, five mites to a halfpenny (which is thus kept), and naturally five farthings to a penny.

    [Reminds me of my attempts to figure out the exchange rates for Wizarding currency in the Harry Potter series – turns out it’s basically 2.5d per knut and 6s per sickle – and of my ideas on the Ankh-Morpork monetary system, with my headcanon answer to the perennial Discworld fandom question of “how many pence to a dollar”. (Spoiler: it’s not the 60 that it was in real history. But I haven’t seen anyone using 60 anyway; the usual options are 100 and 240.) But that’s probably worth its own post (and/or comment), anyway.]

  12. “Semitenth” bothered me as well, but it works if it’s (semi-ten)th = 1/(10/2) rather than semi(tenth) = (1/10)/2. (Or what Keith Ivey said.)

    What’s the local opinion on Revolutionary weeks, hours, minutes, seconds and degrees?

  13. I like working up from the SI second, because changing that means throwing away essentially every fact of physics and chemistry. A kilosec is how late you can be to an appointment before you’ve missed it (in some cultures, anyway). A megasec is a reasonable amount of time to work on a project before you need a status meeting. A marriage is doing extremely well if it lasts a gigasec. (Gale and I passed 1.1 gigasecs and counting.)

  14. David Marjanović says:

    A Republican second is much closer to a human heartbeat at rest than an SI second is, though. SI seconds are strangely long…

  15. January First-of-May says:

    Weird fact I learned a few years ago: the standard sexagesimal division of hours into minutes and seconds does not actually originate with the Sumerians – as some introductory textbooks imply – but comes from the tail end of a long line of borrowing of sexagesimal fractions used for other purposes (shortly before they were finally replaced with decimals everywhere else outside trigonometry), some three millenia after the Sumerians themselves went away.

    (It came up, as well, in a discussion of one Harry Potter fanfic, where a plot point involved a magical Sumerian countdown timer, which naturally counted in minutes and seconds; in comments, I argued that, while – to the best of my knowledge – the Sumerians of history were not actually known to use units corresponding to our minutes and seconds, they wouldn’t be too unlikely to independently come up with identical units had they ever needed any.)

    I wonder whether, had the decimal fractions entered regular use a century or two earlier, the hour would have been divided into 100 seconds today (each corresponding to 3/5 of our minute).

  16. Metric time was in use on the storm planet Henriada.

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