Posted by: Jack Henry | November 29, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Two Bits

Someone asked me about the term “two bits” a few months ago, when I wrote about getting your “two cents’ worth” of something. Thanks a lot, buddy. For several weeks now I’ve had this cheer running through my brain:

Two bits, four bits,

Six bits, a dollar

Yay for the All-Stars,

Stand up and holler!

Yes, that was my fifth and sixth grade basketball team—the All-Stars. And then there was “Shave and a haircut, two bits!” from one of the Saturday morning cartoons we watched. So what, exactly, are two bits? Here’s a fascinating article about the United States version of two bits, its history, and more. From Wikipedia:

In the United States, the bit is equal to one eighth of a dollar or 121⁄2 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 "piece of eight", which was worth 8 Spanish silver reales. One eighth of a dollar or one silver real was one "bit".

[KC – The next three paragraphs were edited for the sake of space. Please see the link above for the entire article, including information on other countries’ “bits,” too.]

With the adoption of the decimal U.S. currency in 1794, there was no longer a U.S. coin worth  1⁄8 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 short bit and 15¢ a long bit.

In addition, Spanish coinage, like other foreign coins, continued to be widely used and allowed as legal tender by Chapter XXII of the Act of April 10, 1806 until the Coinage Act of 1857 discontinued the practice.

"Two bits" or "two bit" continues in general use as a colloquial expression, as in the song catchphrase "Shave and a Haircut, two bits." As an adjective, "two-bit" describes something cheap or unworthy.

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

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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