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Published on Oct 15, 2013 in Europe, Featured Articles, News, North America

What’s in a Name?

Not that long ago, I was in London and buying a coffee at a Starbucks. I still can’t quite get around to choosing tea over coffee. But as I was paying for my coffee in British pounds, I wondered why the British, and some other countries, use the word pound for their currency? And why do we, for that matter, use the word dollar? Below is an explanation of how these names came about.

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British pound – the pound is a unit of currency in some nations, such as Great Britain, where the term originated in the late fourteenth century. This word is derived from the Latin expression libra pondo, which means pound weight, and which was a unit of account in the Roman Empire. A pound in the Roman Empire consisting of 12 ounces rather than our current 16 ounces. The English abbreviation for libra is normally initialized as “lb.” In the fourteenth century a pound in money was the equivalent to the value of a pound of silver. Hence, the word pound. The symbol £ came about as an ornate form of the letter “L,” an abbreviation for libra. One or two cross strokes were put through the “L”, at that time, to designate it as an abbreviation.

As a side, Libra is also an astrological sign given to a constellation that was thought to represent scales or a balance. Hence, the symbol of the scales.

U.S. Dollar – The origin of the word dollar can be traced back to the early sixteenth century from coins that were first minted in Joachimsthal, Bohemia, according to Glyn Davies in A History of Money. Today this city is called Jachymov and is located in the Czech Republic.

These sixteenth century coins were named after the city where they originated and were called Joachimsthaler’s, a word later shortened by locals to thaler, and pronounced as taler, with a long “a.” The English version of word thaler eventually came to be pronounced as dollar.

The term dollar was not only applied to the thaler, but it was also applied as a generic term to a number of different coins, such as those minted in central Europe, the Spanish peso, and the Portuguese eight-real piece as these coins were nearly identical in weight. In addition, these coins were widely used as currency throughout the British colonies in North America because of a shortage of British coins. When the United States became independent, the Founding Fathers chose the word dollar for our new currency rather than using the word pound.

The origin of the dollar sign, “$,” is less certain. However, it’s thought that the symbol is a result of superimposing a capital “U” on a capital “S” and then dropping the lower part of the “U.” No one knows if this is the real origin of the $ sign, but it seems to be the most accepted version.

Alan Refkin

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