A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In Britain, what's the difference between a pound and a guinea?

June 24, 1977

Dear Cecil:

As a devoted reader of Sherlock Holmes I've noticed that there must be some difference between "guineas" and "pounds," but I've never really been able to figure out what it is. How about a little elementary deduction, my dear Cecil?

Cecil replies:

You ever think of looking in the dictionary, Audrey? A pound is equal to 20 shillings, a guinea is equal to 21--or at least they used to be, since guineas and shillings, strictly speaking, aren't around anymore.

The guinea hasn't existed as an actual unit of currency since 1813, when the last guinea coin rolled off the production line at the English mint. The coin was first issued in 1663, when the crown authorized the Royal Mint to manufacture 20-shilling gold pieces "in the name and for the use of the Company of Royal Adventurers trading with Africa." Forty-four of the coins--which bore an image of a small, white elephant, the Royal Adventurer's trademark--were equal in weight to one pound of gold. The coins came to be known as guineas thanks to the British mind's great gift for association: they were minted of gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa. The name stuck to later coins of the same gold value, minted from different stock.

By 1695, the price of gold had climbed enough to make the guinea worth 30 shillings. William III answered this inflationary trend by fixing the value of the guinea at 21 shillings, 6 pence in 1698. The extra 6 pence were finally lopped off in December 1717, fixing the coin at its traditional value of 21 shillings. The British never tired of reforming their monetary system, though, and in 1817 they introduced a new, improved coin, fixed at the easy-to-use value of 20 shillings--the pound. The guinea survived only in the popular imagination, a shorthand way of saying, "one pound and one shilling." Nowadays, if the term is used at all, it's used in come-on advertising, "only one guinea" being the British equivalent of our "only $9.98." If you look fast, it looks cheap.

The humble shilling went the way of all metal on February 15, 1971, when yet another monetary reform act went into effect. The system went to a decimal basis--a pound became one hundred pence, and shillings, thruppence, tuppence, and ha'pennies went out the proverbial window.

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