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What is legal tender?

Aged 18, I arrived in Edinburgh bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with boundless optimism and a wallet full of Northern Irish notes. That first weekend, I popped into a shop to buy a Fuse bar (bring it back, Cadbury’s, you know it makes sense!). The cashier looked over the First Trust Bank fiver and asked me if I had anything else. Confused, I grumbled something about legal tender and pointed out that it was Sterling, but he said he couldn’t accept it and asked for something else, so I had to go to the hole in the wall next door to get an acceptable note for that sweet, sweet chocolately hit.

I now realise that it’s kind of ironic an NI note not being accepted in Scotland when there is a stereotype of English people not accepting Scottish notes, with the cry of ” BUT IT’S LEGAL TENDER!” ringing out across the land. But is it? I thought it was worth finding out what legal tender actually was, and I was more than a bit surprised.

If both parties agree, you can pay for anything any way you like, be it with coins, notes, postage stamps, goats, or a pint.

However, if there is a debt to be settled and both parties differ on how it is to be paid, this is where legal tender comes in.

If I owe someone money, and I offer to pay it in legal tender, the other party must accept my payment. If they do not, then essentially they lose any right to my money. If I offer to pay someone in anything other than legal tender and don’t offer the possibility of legal tender, then the other party may sue me for non-payment. To illustrate, here are two scenarios:

  1. I have taken a taxi home from the pub and I want to pay the cabbie when I arrive
  2. I want to buy a Fuse bar in a WH Smith and pay at the till

Scenario 1 requires payment for a service already rendered and therefore a debt exists. If I offer to pay the cabbie in legal tender, they must accept, but they can refuse any non-legal tender method.

Scenario 2 means no debt exists, as I have not yet purchased the chocolate bar. Yelling “legal tender!” at the cashier or self-service machine has no effect, because there is no debt*. The cashier has effectively refused me service at all because my proposed payment isn’t to their liking (even if it’s legal tender), which is not quite the same as refusing payment. Paying £100 for a Freddo would probably be kind of annoying.

So what is legal tender in the UK?

Throughout the UK, all the standard coins are legal tender, although for smaller denominations there is a limit to how many you can spend at once (so don’t try and pay off your mortgage with 1p coins). Certain commemorative coins are legal tender too.

On the other hand, postage stamps are not legal tender anywhere in the UK, as the royal mint blog confirms. However, you are free to try and use them as they do have an obvious monetary value, but shouldn’t be disappointed if you are refused.

As for notes, in England and Wales, Bank of England notes are legal tender, meaning the cabbie won’t refuse your note in these places (as if they would). They are not legal tender in Scotland and NI. Unfortunately, Scottish notes are not legal tender in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, and NI notes likewise are not legal tender in the rest of the UK.

But here is the surprise.

Scottish banknotes are not even legal tender in Scotland.

Yes. The same is true of Northern Irish banknotes in Northern Ireland. I don’t know why this is, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact notes in these countries are issued by private banks and not by the central Bank of England.

A Scottish cabbie can refuse my Scottish banknote and insist I pay them in coins, or drive me across the border and demand Bank of England notes.

Generally, though, people are mostly sensible, my incident with the First Trust fiver was a one-off, and I have never encountered any problems spending Scottish money in England (or in NI for that matter). But sadly, it isn’t actually legal tender.

I’ve got most of this information from the Bank of England website. Any errors, please let me know!


*There does remain the possibility that I could eat the chocolate bar in the shop before I pay for it, but by that point you’re just being a jerk


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Brussels Sprouts

Brussels is one of my favourite cities to visit, I think because I feel that it appeals to me a lot as a linguist. Brussels is bilingual, and in this post I thought it worth walking through some Belgian history to understand how a country can come to exist with two very different languages and why it’s good to visit such places.

Belgium’s existence owes a lot to a period in history that we don’t seem to study so much in history any more.


Brussels skyline from Parc de Bruxelles, where much fighting in the revolution took place

The Spanish Netherlands, which consisted of a number of formerly semi-autonomous provinces of the Holy Roman Empire, included modern day Flanders (mostly Dutch-speaking) and the Duchy of Luxembourg (where a variety of languages were spoken, but the language of government and high society was French). These two regions were separated by the Bishopric of Liege, a semi-independent French speaking territory ruled by a Bishop. During some internal strife, the Spanish crown lost the territory to Austria in 1713-14. During these periods, citizens were not pushed towards any particular language so remained speaking whatever language they were most comfortable with, because Latin would have been spoken as a common language.


Despite their relatively short history, Belgians are proud of their country

The Austrians lost the territory to the first French Republic shortly after the revolution started in 1789: the territory was completely integrated into France, as was the Bishopric of Liege. The French rule was mostly unpopular for many reasons: the Dutch speakers in Flanders had much of their language and culture repressed, while both Dutch and French-speakers felt the pinch of the Republic’s anti-religious sentiments, being very much strong Catholics.


Maelbeek/Maalbeek station Memorial Wall, remembering the 2016 terrorist attacks

The French were kicked out in 1814, and after Napoleon was defeated and sent off to St Helena at Waterloo, the major powers decided what to do with the territories: their decision was to unite the former Austrian Netherlands to the former Kingdom of Holland to form the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, the people of the South suffered similar problems to what they had under the French. The new Protestant King ruled as a despot, and the constitutional arrangements disproportionally favoured the north. The Catholic church was denied the privileges it had been given prior to the French rule, and made it policy to make dutch the language of government and so the majority- Catholic and French-speaking population grew hostile to the government.

Revolution broke out in 1830, following a particularly rousing opera in Brussels, which the Dutch government was unable to supress. A cease fire was ordered in November in that year and it was decided (again, by “great powers”) that a country called “Belgium” would be formed from the Southern Netherlands (excluding Luxembourg). This was finally accepted by the North in a treaty 1839, with some territories being transferred to France, to the Netherlands, and to Germany.


Bourse-Beurs, the old stock exchange, in the city centre

Not learning from history, French was declared the official language of government, meaning the Flemish-speakers to the north were essentially reduced to second-class citizens- this was not resolved until the 1930s when the government allowed local government to be conducted in Dutch in the northern regions, while the region of Brussels, by now carved out of the Brabant province, was officially Bilingual.

Belgium was to remain politically neutral, meaning that it was not to be touched by any power over the course of war. The German Empire didn’t much care for this (they referred to the Treaty of London as “a scrap of paper!”) and decided to use Belgium as a short-cut to attack Paris. Britain had no choice but to honour the Treaty of London and enter World War 1. Eventually, the Germans surrendered and as part of the reparations were forced to give up land to Belgium (mostly the land around Eupen-Malmedy and, strangely, the bed of a railway called the Vennbahn). When Belgium received these territories, it decided to allow them to continue conducting their business in German, and so German was granted official language status.

Ambiguities surrounding what languages are spoken and where were resolved by creating a “language border” in the ’60s, roughly dividing the country in half lengthwise.


Manneken Pis

Brussels still remains bilingual, although to all intents and purposes, it is a French speaking city. As a linguist, it is interesting to see how the French speakers pronounce words that are obviously Dutch in origin (the municipality of Auderghem is called Ouderghem in Dutch). I remain confused as to how to pronounce the name of one of my favourite Belgian beers, Kwak, in French (the last time I tried, they gave me a Coke).

I guess the reason I love it so much is not for the chips and the beer (though on a summer’s day a carnet with a can of Jupiler would make it perfect), but more that when you walk round, it feels like you could be anywhere in Europe. When I visited the first time it wasn’t that much different in feel to a large-ish English city, but it could just as easily have been in France or Germany. It feels very much like Europe’s crossroads and the combining of Dutch and French, two very different languages, everywhere makes me excited that language differences need not be a barrier to doing things and doing them well, even if the circumstances of them coming together were not the happiest.

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Strong, Stable Leadership (or, let’s change the record)

The Prime Minister has been happy to promise us a “strong and stable leadership”. A lot. Sadly, she has been less than happy to eat a poke of chips.

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(For a little bit of balance, here’s a clip of Ed Miliband doing something similar a few years ago as well as his infamous bacon butty pic, above. British politics is a satirist’s dream.).

The aim is of course to associate these themes with the person saying them, providing re-assurance in the voter’s mind. It doesn’t always work- when Howard in the Big Bang Theory repeatedly listens to Elton John’s Rocketman when speaking to his fellow astronauts (let’s leave the absurd premise of Howard going to space for now) to earn the nickname Rocketman, but they instead plump to call him Froot Loops after an unfortunate interjection from his mother.

Repetition to reinforce a point isn’t anything new. In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar decides it’s time to set up a statue of himself. His instructions are somewhat lacking in brevity, but they are repeated often. It’s hard to miss and it makes for a rather lengthy read:

Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

And the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages,  that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.

 And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.”

Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Later on in the chapter, we see two more repetitions of the music list, one more of the list of government officials, and several of the three men Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and a burning fiery furnace.

So why all the repetition? Why not just say “music”,”the image”, “government officials” and “the three friends”? Would this not make the passage shorter (and less of a pain to read out in church or small group)?

Well, yes it would, but I think Daniel is emphasising a point- in the first part, it’s emphasising the king’s unquestioned authority. What he says, happens. All the government officials are called- and all government officials come. All the people are to bow down to all the music- and all the people bow down to all the music. Anyone disobeying the king’s command is to be thrown into a burning fiery furnace and the three men are thrown into a burning fiery furnace.

In the second part, however, we see that the names of the three men are repeated over and over again, while the previous repetitions are reduced. Eventually, after the men are miraculously delivered from the burning fiery furnace, the king gives a new decree:

“Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.

Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.”

Instead of the list of music and the image he set up, we now see the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the fiery furnace is gone, and instead of an image he set up, there’s now a god who is seen to deliver people. In this way, God has shown the king who really has authority and he has reacted accordingly. For now.

In Jesus’ time, we see the effect miracles and teaching have on those watching, and not just the Jews. A centurion, on asking Jesus to heal his servant, remarks:

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.

He is recognising Jesus’ authority. He tells men what to do, yet recognises Jesus as a higher authority than he. This gives great comfort when dealing with earthly rulers, but also serves  as a reminder as to whom it is we are really serving.


(Most of this was borrowed from a blog post I already wrote a couple of years ago, but thought I would re-use it for topicality. I haven’t written in a while, so thought I would ease my way back in to it!)

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