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I am translating a British story and I came across this expression

"you look like you lost a shilling and found a penny". I am not sure I understand what it means.

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You could help us interpret this better by giving supplying more of the context where you found the expression. Conceivably, it could be referring to a coin collector who lost a shilling but found a penny, but I suspect the meaning is more metaphorical. It might be another way of taking about a silver lining, but, without more context, it's hard to say for sure. –  J.R. Jun 14 '13 at 18:56

2 Answers 2

A shilling and a penny are two increments of currency, where a shilling is made up of many pence (the multiple for penny when it is a unit of currency). In Britain, actually, the shilling is no longer in use, so this is somewhat of an archaic saying.

Essentially, though, the saying implies that you've lost something, and found something less valuable to replace it — or even, simply that you look disappointed about something.

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While the found article may be less desirable, I think the meaning is more about the value of the lost and found articles. –  Kristina Lopez Jun 14 '13 at 17:22
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Thanks - have updated my answer. –  Hannele Jun 14 '13 at 17:23

Prior to 'decimalisation' in February 1971, British currency followed the structure that had been used since pre-800 AD. This was as follows:

One pound (£1) = 20 shillings (denoted thus: 20s or 20/-)
One shilling (1/-) = 12 pence (12d) (singular penny) (the abbreviation d for penny/pence originated from the Roman denarius)
Thus there were 240 pence to the pound (strictly the pound sterling, so named because the value of the pound was originally equivalent to the value of one pound weight of sterling silver).

The penny was further subdivided into:
- 2 half-pennies (½d) (pronounced ha'penny (singular) or ha'pence (plural)); or
- 4 farthings (¼d)

Coins with values of one-quarter of a farthing (1/960th of £1) and one-third of a farthing were in use in some of the British colonies in the 19th century.

On decimalisation in 1971, the value of the pound was retained unchanged, but became subdivided into 100 new pence (abbreviation p) (the new has since been dropped).

The name shilling was dropped, but the then one shilling coin became worth 5 new pence. All pre-decimalisation coins of value sixpence (half shilling) or higher simply adopted their corresponding new values, and pre-decimalisation coins of lower value (which had no exact post-decimalisation equivalent) were withdraw and replaced by 'copper' coins of value ½p (since dropped), 1p & 2p (still in use, although coin size has changed).

So back to the original question:

to lose a shilling and find a penny

refers to the pre-decimalisation one-shilling and one-penny coins, and (as others have intimated) was an old British idiom indicating that you had lost something of value and found something of considerably lower value.

The pre-decimalisation shilling coins remained in use until 1991, but their new equivalent, a smaller five-(new)pence coin, continues in use. Sadly, the old one-penny coin is long deceased.


Finally, clarification of plural of penny (supplementing the answer from @Hannele):

The usual plural of penny - used when referring to it as a currency unit - is pence.
All British coins with values between 1p (one penny) and £1 (one pound) use the word pence in stating their value.

Another form of the plural is pennies, but this is normally used only when referring to multiples of one-penny coins: I have three pennies would be understood as meaning I have three one-penny coins.

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Another symbol for the pound, besides the '£' symbol currently in usage, is a simple capital 'L' (standing for librum, meaning pound as in the weight, and indeed the '£' is simply an ornate capital 'L' with a bar across it). –  dbmag9 Jun 15 '13 at 12:53
    
I've never seen a simple L used for the pound - where is that in use? I agree that the £ symbol is an ornate L. –  TrevorD Jun 15 '13 at 19:02
    
Wikipedia mentions it (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C2%A3sd), and I'm sure I've seen it that way in old books. I thought I'd seen lowercase 'l' too, but Googling suggests that's unlikely. –  dbmag9 Jun 15 '13 at 19:53
    
Wikipedia mentions it once (in the opening line), but gives no reference to support it and anyone could have written that. You may have "seen it that way in old books" (and I don't dispute that it may have been used in the past), but your previous comment (as I understood it) suggests that L is still used. –  TrevorD Jun 15 '13 at 22:33
    
Ah; I meant that 'L' was used as a symbol for the pound in the pre-decimal system, along with 's' and 'd' for shillings and pence. I can't edit the comment, but apologies for the confusion. As I said above '£' is the only symbol currently in usage (obviously excluding typographical variants, and terms like 'GBP'). –  dbmag9 Jun 15 '13 at 23:36

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