History of the U.S.: $ymbol Minded


How did the word “dollar” come to be represented by “$”— a symbol with no apparent connection to any of the letters in dollar?

After the Revolution, the Founding Fathers were determined to dump the vestiges of British rule, including currency based on pounds, shillings, and pence. Instead of inventing a whole new system, however, they sensibly modeled their currency on that of another European power, Spain— partly because no one could confuse it with Britain’s, and partly because gold and silver from Spanish colonies in South America and Mexico played a big role in international finance. The main denomination was intended to correspond in value to the Spanish real de a ocho, or piece of eight— the standard Spanish coin at this time. To mix things up a bit, the Founding Fathers called their version, with the same monetary value, a dollar, an old North European monetary unit from the German word Taler, a short form of Joachimstaler—a coin minted in the Joachimstal valley of Bohemia in the sixteenth century.

So where’d the $ sign come from? Well, nobody’s sure, but there are a couple of possible explanations. One theory holds that it’s a contorted version of the Spanish shorthand ps, standing for pesos. Another theory says it’s an 8 with a slash through it, referring to the Spanish piece of eight. Our favorite explanation: it’s an abstract interpretation of an artistic detail on the Spanish real de a ocho, showing a banner wrapped around a pillar.

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