Thursday, July 18, 2013

Etymology of Money - US Edition

Money has been in the English language since the 13th century, courtesy of Old French carrying it to us from Latin.  In Latin, it was originally a surname of the Roman goddess, Juno: Moneta.  Coins were minted (also a similar etymology) outside the temple of Juno.  Other forms of currency were included in the term in the early 1800's.

In 1699, John Locke first applied the word currency to economics.  As opposed to a barter system, where goods are directly traded for each other, the use of money allows for more liquidity.  This increases the flow of trade, thus the root word, "current" as in a stream.

Tender is on the federal reserve notes in the United States.  It means "to offer", and by association with the idea of extending the hand, ultimately shares the same Latin root as the word tendon.  The word gained formality when in English in the 1540's, and became used for "money legally offered as payment" in 1740.

A "note" was originally more like an IOU, then a check.  These were called promissory notes, a piece of paper on which was written a promise for a specified sum to be paid to a designated person.  When a bank printed official slips promising amounts of money to be withdrawn from their treasury, they were called banknotes.  The Federal Reserve, that prints our bills in the United States, is a bank - not a branch of the government - so technically, our paper money are banknotes.

When I think of the phrase "dollar bill," I imagine a slip of paper, rectangular, of a certain size, and printed to look like money.  The word bill is most often used as a piece of a transaction with delayed payment.  The bill tells how much is owed, and when.  It is a demand for payment.  The dollar bill is also an order for payment: it is an order to the issuing bank to pay out the value of the bill to the holder, if turned in for exchange.  I'm not sure this would actually work in our bank system today, but it is an interesting historical fact, perhaps more relevant to the development of our economy than we realize.

A dollar is the primary denomination of money in the United States.  This was instituted by Thomas Jefferson and Gouverner Morris when the (pre-constitution) Continental Congress established the US currency in 1785.  They selected the term because it was not British, but commonly known.  Colonists used the word to refer to the Spanish pieces of eight (and our dollar sign, $, is derived from the symbol stamped on that coin) - though the word was originally German, an abbreviation of Joachimstal, a mine in northwest Bohemia opened in 1516.  The staler began as the coin minted from silver acquired there.

Buck refers to a dollar because it was another term for money used in the American west.  Native Americans sometimes traded buckskin (deer skin) with European-descended pioneers, and so over time the term became slang for official United States money also.

The stamp for making coins was wedge-shaped in the 1300's, and the French word for wedge or corner was coing, from the Latin cuneus.  (Think about cuneiform writing - symbols made by pressing a wedge into soft clay).  By extension, we use the word to refer to the thing stamped, a piece of metal minted as currency.
As you might expect, "dime" means a tenth, or a tithe.  It also comes from the French (disme), and the Latin (decema).  In 1786 Congress decided to call the ten-cent piece of our money a dime.

Nickel is one of the most fascinating words in our money-lingo.  The root of the word is "devil."  Copper miners saw ore of the color they were seeking, and fell prey to the wiles of the false-copper.  (In the early United States, all coin had to be made from gold, silver, or copper - metals considered more valuable - by law.)  But a whitish metal could be derived from it, named "nickel" in 1754 by a Swedish mineralologist.  In the history of United States money, it was first applied to one-cent pieces when nickel replaced the bulkier copper in minting those in 1857.  In 1866 a second type of five-cent piece was made, also containing nickel (mixed with copper), and so the term "nickel" came to be applied to it as well.  Eventually this new nickel replaced the tiny silver half-dime.

Penny is not an official congressionally-instituted name for a US coin.  We insisted on using the more literal and non-British term, "cent" (one-hundredth of a dollar).  But the habits of the people have prevailed.  The smallest-value coin in England has long been the penny, set at one-twelfth the value of a a shilling there.  Over the years their pennies were each made of silver, then copper, then bronze.  Though we know the word is Germanic, since it appears all over the German languages, no one knows what it originally meant or where the word came from.  In 1889 there is the first recorded use of the colloquial application of "penny" for our American one-cent piece.  I have never called them anything but pennies, bright copper coins cluttering up wallets and jars and cash registers all over the country.  (Incidentally, if I was referring to the British pieces collectively, the plural would be "pence" instead of "pennies".)

Thanks to,, and for their information.

To God be all glory.

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