• Paul Anthony Jones

Pennywhite

(n.) someone whose wealth makes up for their physical unattractiveness



Someone whose wealth acts as compensation for their less than appealing appearance is a pennywhite. [Insert picture of Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch’s wedding here.]



That’s a term that found currency (no pun intended) in eighteenth-century slang, but its very earliest records date back to the 1600s in English. The attractiveness of money, it seems, is by no means new.


Etymologically, the ‘penny’ part here is—well, just a penny, being used as a placeholder term (i.e. a metonym, if you want to get technical about it) to represent all cash. The ‘white’ part, however, is more puzzling.


Especially given the age in which this word first emerged, it’s likely that white in this context is meant to tap into the longstanding association in out language between whiteness and purity or goodness, which underpins many words and phrases, like white magic and white witch. This can be an understandably distasteful-sounding connection today (especially when contrasted against opposite terms, like black magic and black market), but it’s nevertheless likely that to be the implication of this term too.


Alternatively, though, ‘white’ here could be referring to silver. The word white has been synonymous with silver, and silver coinage in particular, since the Middle English period—so perhaps the implication here is of someone whose unattractiveness makes all their pennies appear as silver? It’s a nicer theory, certainly, but alas it doesn’t seem to ally quite so neatly with the structure of this word.

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