How 6 of the World's Major Currencies Got Their Names
by James Hunt
When you really think about it, money is strange. That's probably why we don't. The last thing the global economy needs is for us to collectively realize that a slip of paper or a metal coin doesn't have much (if any) inherent value and that it's all little more than a collective delusion. So rather than wax philosophical on the basics of world economics, we thought we'd look at something a bit more certain: where the world's currencies got their names.
1. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: DOLLAR
When Congress established the mint in 1792, it continued the long-standing terminology of referring to our currency as dollars, though the word "dollar" itself has a convoluted history. It begins in the 1500s, when a Bohemian aristocrat named Count Hieronymus Schlick began to mint silver coins called "Joachimstalers." Joachimstal was the name of the valley where the silver for the coins was mined, and the suffix "-er" indicated their origin in the Germanic language (the same way a Berliner is a person—or a type of doughnut—from Berlin).
Shortened in German to simply taler, the word crossed over into various other languages: Swedish daler, Norwegian dalar, and Dutch Daalder. It was then applied to other coins, such as the Dutch leeuwendaalder (lion dollar) which, as you might imagine, depicted a lion. A quirk of the leeuwendaalder's metal content meant it weighed less than other large denomination coins and therefore became popular for trade, because it traveled more easily.
If you know your U.S. history, you would probably guess it arrived in the Colonies via New Amsterdam, and you'd be correct. Spanish Pieces of Eight were the same size and weight as "lion dollars," which is why they came to be known as the Spanish dollar, and were themselves widely distributed in the Spanish colonies. Hence, when the time came to choose a currency, dollars were already popular throughout the American continent and became the official one.
2. UNITED KINGDOM: POUND STERLING
The British like to claim the Pound as the world’s oldest currency, dating back over 1000 years, to Anglo-Saxon Britain. The etymology of Pound Sterling is therefore uncertain, but the most probable origin for "sterling" lies with the Old English word steorra, which meant "star". British Normans added the diminutive suffix "-ling" to create a word meaning "little star," which was used as slang for a small silver penny. When issued in the Saxon Kingdoms of Britain, 240 "sterlings" were minted from a pound of silver. Payments were therefore measured in "pounds sterling," giving rise to the current name.
Unsurprisingly, the practice of naming currency after weight isn't restricted to the UK. Lira, pesos, and rubles are all derived from words related to weight.
3. EUROPE: EURO
Fairly straightforward, the Euro is of course derived from the word "Europe," and replaced the former ECU (European Currency Unit) in 1999.
But where did the name Europe come from? It can be traced back to a character from Greek mythology, Europa, that is of unknown origin, although folk etymologists have attempted to trace it to the word eurys, meaning “wide face” or a Semitic word meaning “the Region of the Setting Sun.” It's unclear how the name was attached to the continent, but Greeks referred to the area they lived in as Europa as far back as 522 BCE. Over time, the term's geographical limits were widened until they came to encompass the entire continent.
4. JAPAN: YEN
Introduced in 1871, the Yen's name is taken from the Japanese word "えん (en)," which means literally "round" and is related, linguistically, to both the Chinese yuan and the South Korean won.
Prior to this, the region—particularly China —traded silver by mass, and when Spanish and Mexican dollars reached the area they were known as "silver rounds" because of their shape, including in Japan. English-speaking visitors to Japan transcribed the word "en" as "yen," and indeed the responsibility probably falls on James Curtis Hepburn, an American missionary who produced the first authoritative Japanese-English dictionary and spelled all "e"s as "ye."
A later edition of the dictionary dropped the "y" from other words, but retained it for yen, indicating that it was probably in common use in that form, and its existing association with coins is undoubtedly why the modernizing Meiji government of Japan chose the name for its new currency.
5. SWITZERLAND: SWISS FRANC
As a unit of currency, the Franc takes its name from France, where it was the official currency between 1795 and 1999. In 1850 the Swiss Franc was introduced in Switzerland, taking its name from the original (probably as a result of the currency's existing popularity in the region).
The first francs were French gold coins minted in 1360 to commemorate the English government's release of King John II of France (and help stabilize the French economy during the Hundred Years’ War), and were only made for 20 years. The name was reused again for a silver coin issued between 1575 and 1641, after which point franc had become a common term for money.
6. INDIA: RUPEE
Rupees are used in many countries on both the Indian subcontinent and Indian Ocean (not to mention The Legend of Zelda). Their name is derived from a Sanskrit word, rūpya, which specifically means "stamped"—as in silver that has been stamped to make it into a coin.
The currency has been around since the 1500s, when silver coins were called rupees, gold coins were called mohurs, and copper coins were called dams .