Bit (money)

The word bit is a colloquial expression referring to specific coins in various coinages across the world.


In the United States, the bit is equal to one eighth of a dollar or twelve 1 ⁄Two cents. In the U.S., the “bit” as a designation for money dates from the colonial period, when the most common unit of currency used was the Spanish dollar, also known as “chunk of eight”, which was worth eight Spanish silver reales. One eighth of a dollar or one silver real was one “bit”.

With the adoption of the decimal U.S. currency in 1794, there was no longer a U.S. coin worth one ⁄8 of a dollar but “two bits” remained in the language with the meaning of one quarter dollar, “four bits” half dollar, etc. Because there was no one-bit coin, a dime (10¢) was sometimes called a brief bit and 15¢ a long bit. (The picayune, which was originally one ⁄Two real or one ⁄Two bit ( six 1 ⁄Four ¢), was similarly transferred to the US 5¢-piece.)

In addition, Spanish coinage, like other foreign coins, continued to be widely used [1] and permitted as legal tender by Chapter XXII of the Act of April Ten, one thousand eight hundred six [Two] until the Coinage Act of one thousand eight hundred fifty seven discontinued the practice.

In the Pacific States they have made a bolder shove for complexity, and lodge their affairs by a coin that no longer exists – the BIT, or old Mexican real. The supposed value of the bit is twelve and a half cents, eight to the dollar. When it comes to two bits, the quarter-dollar stands for the required amount. But how about an odd bit? The nearest coin to it is a dime, which is, brief by a fifth. That, then, is called a Brief bit. If you have one, you lay it triumphantly down, and save two and a half cents. But if you have not, and lay down a quarter, the bar-keeper or shopman calmly tenders you a dime by way of switch; and thus you have paid what is called a LONG BIT, and lost two and a half cents, or even, by comparison with a brief bit, five cents.

“Two bits” or “two bit” proceeds in general use as a colloquial expression, primarily because of the song catchphrase “Trim and a Haircut, two bits.” As an adjective, “two-bit” can be used to describe something cheap or unworthy.

Roger Miller’s song “King of the Road” features these lines: Ah, but two hours of pushin’ broom buys an / Eight by twelve four-bit room.

The U.S. budget record label Crown (1930-1933) advertised on their sleeve, “Two Hits for two Bits” (25¢).

Another example of the use of “bit” can be found in the poem “Six-Bits Blues” by Langston Hughes, which includes the following couplet: Gimme six bits’ worth o’ticket / On a train that runs somewhere. . The expression also survives in the sports cheer “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar . all for (player’s name), stand up and holler!”

The Fresh York Stock Exchange continued to list stock prices in eighths of a dollar until June 24, 1997, at which time it commenced listing in sixteenths. It did not fully implement decimal listing until January 29, 2001.

From one thousand nine hundred five to 1917, the Danish West Indies used the bit as part of its currency system. In 1904, two fresh currency denominations were introduced, the bit and francs which were overlaid on the old cent and daler denominations. The four units were related as five bits = one cent, one hundred bits = twenty cents = one franc, one hundred cents = five francs = one daler. [Four] Coins were issued each denominated in two units, bits and cents, francs and cents, or francs and daler. Postage stamps were denominated in bits and francs; the lowest value was five bits.

In Britain, Ireland and parts of the former British Empire, where before decimalisation a British-style currency of “pounds, shillings and pence” was in use, the word “bit” was used differently. Rather than indicating a specific monetary value, it was applied colloquially to a range of low-denomination coins in the sense of “coin” or “lump of money”. [Five] Thus a threepence coin or “threepenny lump” would become a “threepenny bit”, usually pronounced “thru’penny bit”, or “thre’penny bit”.

The term was used only of coins indicating numerous values – a penny coin was simply a “penny”, not a “penny bit”, a shilling coin was a “shilling”, a half crown coin (worth two shillings and sixpence) was “half-a-crown” – but anything valued at more than a unit could attract the suffix “bit”.

Albeit earlier there had been other values in circulation such as the “fourpenny bit” or “groat”, the “bit” coins still in use in the United Kingdom up to decimalisation in one thousand nine hundred seventy one were the two-shilling bit (or “florin”) (often “two-bob bit”), the sixpenny bit (or “tanner”), and the threepenny bit.

In the UK, use of the term “bit” largely disappeared with the arrival of decimal coinage and the loss of the coin denominations to which it had applied. Thus a ten pence chunk is referred to merely as “ten pence”, or even “ten urinate”, not as a “tenpenny bit”.

The historic American adjective “two-bit” (to describe something worthless or insignificant) has a British equivalent in “tuppenny-ha’penny” – literally, worth two and a half (old) pence.

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