The Great Penny Debate

Over the years, media coverage occasionally ramps up around what I think of as the Great Penny Debate: whether to discontinue the U.S. one-cent denomination. The issue was covered on 60 Minutes a few weeks back, and now it's showing up in an excellent New Yorker article. The heart of the issue is that pennies cost more than one cent to make, so why not stop making them? There's also some disagreement as to the efficiency (and thus cost) of counting out change using pennies -- wouldn't rounding to the nearest five cents be faster? Given the prevalence of "take-a-penny" dishes at many checkout counters, it seems that cashiers already prefer rounding than dealing with pennies.

Countries (including the U.S., with the 1857 elimination of the half-penny) have discontinued low-denomination coins before, so it's not a far-fetched notion to think that the penny's days are numbered. But the actual issue aside, this whole penny discussion is jam-packed with trivia about coins and metallurgy. The New Yorker piece linked above brings us some great tidbits. I've gone ahead and collected some of its best factoids for your reading pleasure:

A penny minted before 1982 is ninety-five per cent copper -- which, at recent prices, is approximately two and a half cents' worth.

...More recent [pennies] are ninety-seven and a half per cent zinc.

Nickels, despite their silvery appearance, are seventy-five per cent copper.

Canadian five-cent coins ... were a hundred per cent nickel most years from 1946 to 1981.

Primarily because zinc [in addition to copper] has soared in value, producing a penny now costs about 1.7 cents.

...The Treasury incurs an annual penny deficit of about fifty million dollars -- a condition known in the coin world as "negative seigniorage."

Breaking stride to pick up a penny, if it takes more than 6.15 seconds, pays less than the federal minimum wage.

...Eliminating pennies would increase our reliance on nickels, which now cost almost ten cents to manufacture....

There's much more to the article than these bits of trivia, so I encourage you to read it in full. Also, the article mentions people "throwing away" pennies. Really? Dear readers, please tell me if you've been throwing away pennies. I toss mine in a jar, but never the trash.

How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

TAKWest, Youtube
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]


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