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Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven

01:00 Sat 05th Jan 2002 |

Q. Nice thought, but where does the phrase originate

A. Whether or not the phrase originated there, it was certainly popularised by the film Pennies from Heaven (1936), and in particular by the Oscar-nominated hit song of the same name written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston and sung by Bing Crosby. It has since, of course, become a crooner's standard, and featured in the repertoires of the likes of Frank Sinatra.

Q. What about the TV series Pennies from Heaven

A. Dennis Potter's landmark 1970's BBC TV series reintroduced the song into the public consciousness. Potter's story of a travelling sheet-music salesman used hit songs of the 1920s and 1930s to show how popular songs both shaped and reflected the life and times of the protagonists. Transported to Depression-era America, the story was adapted by Potter for the big screen in 1981 in a less-than-satisfactory Hollywood version starring Steve Martin.

Q. And a little more of the lyric


Every time it rains, it rains

Pennies from heaven

Don't you know each cloud contains

Pennies from heaven

You'll find your fortune falling

All over town

Be sure your umbrella

Is upside down

Q. In the light of the recent European currency upheavals, how about a swift history of the penny

A.�The roots of the word possibly go back to the German word pfanne, meaning 'pan', which is similar to the German word pfennig, cognate with penny.

But the origins of the coin go back to the Roman denarius, hence the pre-decimalisation abbreviation 'd'. After the retreat of Roman influence in Britain in the early 5th century relatively few coins were struck. The Frankish King Pepin the Short introduced silver deniers on the Continent in 755, and similar coins were also introduced into England, probably by King Offa, shortly afterwards. For the next 500 years the silver penny was the main English coin type issued.

The English silver penny was struck to such high standards that it rapidly became famous throughout Europe. Not only were its size and weight imitated, but also its designs, portraits and inscriptions. It served as the model for the coins of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland - amazingly, the first coins produced in Poland by Boguslav the Mighty carried the name of Ethelred I, King of England.

Such is the lasting influence of the penny that, although the USA declared independence from Britain in 1776, and adopted a decimal currency, largely as a gesture of independence, Americans rather curiously still refer to their one cent coin as a penny.

The first copper pennies, weighing one ounce, were issued in 1797. They were so substantial that they soon became known as 'cartwheel' pennies. The size and weight were reduced slightly for the next issues of 1806 and 1807, and copper pennies continued to be produced until 1860, when a new, smaller bronze penny - still commonly referred to as 'a copper' - was introduced. These were produced until 1967, with a penny dated 1970 being specially produced for inclusion in a 'farewell to �.s.d' set bearing that date.

Q. What about post-decimalisation

A. The 'new pence' lasted from 1971 to 1982, after which time the 'new' was dropped and the penny once again bears the value 'one penny'. In 1992, the coin began to be produced from copper-plated steel.

See also the answerbank article on sterling

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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