The Grammarphobia Blog

A half-dollar vs. 50 cents

Q: Has the use of the term “half-dollar” to mean fifty cents fallen out of favor? I never hear it anymore.

A: Standard dictionaries generally define the term “half-dollar” as a coin worth 50 cents, not as an amount of money valued at 50 cents.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines it as “a US coin worth 50 cents” while the online Collins English Dictionary defines it as “(in the US) a 50-cent piece.”

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says it’s “a coin worth 50 cents,” and the unabridged Random House Dictionary says it’s either a US or Canadian coin “equal to 50 cents.”

We’ve found only two standard dictionaries that define a “half-dollar” as both a coin and an amount of money, and those two references are published by the same company:

● Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it can be “a coin that is worth 50 cents” or “the sum of 50 cents.”

● The online Merriam Webster’s Unabridged says it’s either “a coin representing one half of a dollar” or “the sum of fifty cents or one half of a dollar.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry for “half-dollar” first appeared in 1898 and hasn’t been fully updated, defines the term as “a silver coin of the United States and other countries, equal to 50 cents.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 8, 1786, resolution published in the Journals of Congress: “Resolved … that the silver coins shall be as follows: One coin containing 187  82-100 grains of fine silver, to be called a Half-Dollar.”

The 1964 John F. Kennedy half-dollars were the last to contain silver (the percentage of silver was reduced from 90 percent to 40 percent from 1965 to 1970).

You seldom see a half-dollar today, except in coin collections. That may be another reason why the term “half-dollar” is rarely used now to mean 50 cents.

As “the popularity of the Kennedy half dollar began to fade,” production fell from a high of over 429 million in 1964 to just over 3 million in 2011,  according to the numismatic writer James Bucki.

“The workhorse coin of the US economy,” Bucki says on About.com, “was, and still is, the Washington quarter dollar.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

­