Issue 132, page 1

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On the money

Around this time of year, tourists are getting off planes and exchanging travellers' checks for currency that may look like anything from counterfeit soap coupons to immortal works of art.  But it's surprising how much currencies have in common - at least in the names they use...

Click to learn more about Irish paper money.The familiar dollar was originally Joachimsthaler [gulden].  That is German for "a [gold coin] from the Joachim Valley".  The -thal- element of the word which means "valley" is essentially the same word as the English dale and also occurs in Neaderthal ("Neander Valley").  In 1516, a mine in Joachimsthal, Bohemia began producing silver of exceptional purity.  Coins were minted from this metal from 1519 onwards and by 1540 these coins were being called thalers.  The English word for these coins was dollar, a word that was in use by 1600.

Those readers who are still awake may have noticed an odd discrepancy in the previous paragraph.  We said that gulden meant a "gold coin" but the original dollars were silver.  Well, originally, gulden (plural) were gold coins but, as frequently happens, a word for one coin is transferred to another.  For instance, the gulden (sometimes Anglicized to guilder) is the currency of the modern Netherlands but its symbol is Fl which stands for florin.  This word is the name of a medieval coin which some say originated in Florence.  It is more likely that the name comes from the flower (a lily) on the coin.  British readers may recall the florin as the two-shilling bit.  After decimalization of the British currency system, the florin remained in circulation as the 10 pence piece.  In fact, the British florin was introduced in 1860 as a first step in decimalizing the pound - it just took 110 years to complete the project.

Note the use of the term two-shilling bit.  In Britain, the word bit was used in combinations such as a threepenny bit or a sixpenny bit to refer to certain coins.  However, a bit, used without qualification, was slang for the four-penny coin, now long out of circulation.  When the four-penny coin first appeared, in 1351, it was called a groat and was made with an eighth of an ounce of silver.  Such coins were known in much of western Europe as grosse pfenninge (Old High German, "thick pennies") or groschen.  (In later years, groschen was the change you got from a thaler.) When speaking of coins, Americans still call cents "pennies".  This name goes back to Anglo-Saxon times when the Old English word for "money" was pening.  Of course, in those days, the penny was really worth something.

The earliest Roman coin is said to have been the as - a piece of iron in the shape of a cow and worth (you guessed it) one cow.  These proved unwieldy (and rust-prone, none have survived) so they were replaced with the denarius (from Latin deni "tenfold") and the sestertius (from Latin sesqui- "one-and-a-half" + tertius "third").  These were worth, respectively, ten asses and two-and-a-half asses.  (Yes, we realize that one-and-a-half plus one third does not make two-and-a-half but have you tried doing fractions with Roman numerals?)  

The franc takes its name from an inscription on the coin which followed the name of the king:The Eurocoin.  Click to learn about collecting ancient coins. francorum rex  (Latin "king of the Franks").  Apparently, the French revolutionary council of 1795 was not aware of this royal detail when they adopted the franc as the basis of their new decimal currency.  Other "royal" currencies are the real (Brazil) and the rial (Iran, Oman, Yemen).

There are some still alive who can remember when £sd meant "pounds, shillings and pence", not the laboratory name of a psychedelic drug.  The L stood for libra, Latin for "pound [weight]", the s stood for sesterce (an Anglicized version of sestertius) and the d for denarius.  Curiously, the values of the latter two became reversed.  

The British use a weight (pound) to make purchases but then again, so do the Italians (lira), Turks (also lira), Greeks (drachma) and Israelis (shekel).  The earliest coins were standardized weights of an accepted metal so it is natural that their names should reflect weight in some way.  Other "weight" currencies are the peso (from Latin pensum "weight") and its diminutive, the peseta.  Spanish pesos had eight segments marked on their reverse so that the coins could be divided (to make change).  English pirates of the Caribbean called them "pieces of eight".  But then, they also called them "dollars".

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?

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