Quantity, physicality, source — the origins of currency names

By Lorenzo

The terms we use for units of currency–when they are not named after historical figures, terms for money or items once used as money–often come from one of three origins: quantity (number or, more commonly, weight); physicality (shape or content); or source. That pound (as in pound sterling, the oldest currency still in use) is originally a weight term is obvious–as it still is a weight term (at least, for those still using the old British weights and measures system). But can you tell me which of the three–quantity, physicality or source–the term dollar comes from? (Answer at the end of the post.)

(And if anyone could point me to the derivation of kip, the currency of Laos, that would be appreciated.)

Named after money or items used as money
Sometimes, it is hard to disentangle whether the unit derives from quantity, physicality or source. The dong, the currency of Vietnam, derives from the term for moneyreferring to Chinese bronze coins, with the Chinese terms it is derived from also referring to weight. So, is dong quantity, shape or source derived? The taka, the currency of Bangladesh also just means coin. As does the manat, the currency of Azerbaijan and of Turkmenistan. The Gambia dalasi probably derives from a local name for a 5-franc coin. The Peru sol comes from solidus (solid) a Roman coin but also means sun in Spanish.

The dobra of Sao Tome and Principe, comes from to fold; the connection to money is via doubloon, or in Portugese dobrao.

Currencies named after animals or shells typically have association with money or trade. The lev, the currency of Bulgaria comes from lion, as does the leu, the currencies of Romania and Moldovaas in the Dutch lion dollar or leeuwendaalder. The Croatia kuna means marten, whose pelts were used as trade items in medieval times. The Ghana cedi derives from a local name for cowrie shell, the most common money-item across time and space. The Guatemala quetzal, is named after the national bird, whose feathers were used as currency in Mayan times. The Papua New Guinea kina is named after a shell used in trade.

The Georgia lari derives from a word meaning hoard or property.

Historical figures
The lek of Albania is named after Alexander the Great, whose name is often shortened to Leka in Albanian. The Costa Rico colón is named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish). The Honduran lempira is named after Lempira, a folk hero who led native resistance against the Spanish. The Nicaragua cordoba is named after the country’s notional founder, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. The Panamana balboa is named after the Spanish explorer, Vasco Numez de Balboa. The Tajikistan somoni is named after Isma’il ibn Ahmad (also known as Ismoil Somoni), regarded as founder of the Tajik nation. The Venezuelan bolivar is named after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general central to the successful Spanish American wars of independence.

Plants, peoples, places
The gourde of Haiti means gourd as in plant. The Tongapa’anga is named after a vine.

Paraguay‘s guarani comes from an indigenous people whose language is taught in Paraguay. The loti of Lesotho derives from mountains. The kwacha, the currencies of Malawi and Zambia, means dawn.

The nakfa of Eritrea is named after the town that was at the centre of their independence struggle. The kwanza of Angola is named after a river. The pula of Botswana (also a dry country) means rain.

The oldest currency terms are almost all weight terms; such as shekel and talent. Shekels (sheqel) are still the currency unit of Israel. Some weight terms used in exchange never got beyond being a weight term–notably the Egyptian deben. Sometimes, the currency term just means weight–such as stater and peso. The currencies of ArgentinaChileColombiaCuba, the Dominican RepublicMexico, and Uruguay are all pesos. The Philippines also uses the peso, or piso. The Macau pataca comes from the Portuguese for peso.

Athenian “owl”, after 499BC

A (partial) exception on quantity and antiquity is the drachma, which comes from the verb to grasp, which does imply easy to handle. It is only a partial exception, as a drachma was also a small weight unit. The Athenian “owl” tetradrachm (because it had the owl of Athena on it) was perhaps the earliest trade currency coin. Drachma is the source (via Latin) for dirham, currently the currency of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and of dram, the currency of Armenia.

Using weight terms for money has been a continuing historical tendency–such as mark (still used in the currency of Bosnia-Hercegovina), the metical of Mozambique and the baht, the currency of Thailand. While the etymology of the Russian ruble is somewhat unclear, in the medieval period a ruble was a weight, the Russian equivalent to the markBelarus also has a ruble as it currency. The ouguiya of Mauritania derives from ounce in Arabic.

The tenge of Kazakhstan originally came from (weighing) scales. Apart from pound sterling (and its local derivatives in British territories), there is also the Egyptian pound, the Sudanese pound, the South Sudanese pound (and the former Irish punt).

Livre and lira are both derived from libra, a Roman unit of weight (also the source of the pound sign). The lira is still the currency of Turkey and is the local name for the Lebanese pound and the Syrian pound and colloquially for the Jordanian dinar.

Abbasid dinar 811

The most significant currency term derived from quantity which is a number rather than a weight was denarius (derived from containing ten), the source for the dinar and denaro, the Italian word for money. The currencies of AlgeriaBahrainIraqJordanKuwaitLibyaSerbia and Tunisia are all dinars, while Macedonia uses the (same derivation) denar. The former Iranian currency unit, the toman, also derives from a number.

The shilling, the currencies of KenyaSomaliaSomalilandTanzania and Uganda, derives from an old Anglo-Saxon accounting term.

Shape terms generally come from the use of coins. Yenyuan and won (the currency units of Japan, China and Korea respectively) all mean round or round object. The togrog of Mongolia originally meant circle or circular object.

Rupee derives from the Sanskrit r?pá, meaning beautiful form. The currencies of IndiaPakistanSri LankaNepalMauritius, and Seychelles are all rupees. While the Maldives uses the rufiyaa and Indonesia the rupiah (same derivations).

Ringgit (the currency of Malaysia, although it may also be used for the Brunei and Singapore dollars) means jagged, and refers to the jagged edges of the Spanish dollar (aka real de a ocho, aka peso de ocho, aka pieces of eight).

Kyat (the currency of Burma) comes from pulled together and apparently refers to the peacock seal of the original issuing King of Burma on the coin. The escudo, the currency of Cape Verde, comes from shield, referring to the heraldic shield on coins.

Other physicality
The material used could also be the origin of currency units; thus guilder derives from the Dutch or German for golden (gulden) and continued to be applied even when currency was no longer in gold. The Caribbean guilder is due to come into operation, replacing the Netherlands Antilles guilder as the currency of Curacao and Sint Maarten, in the Dutch Caribbean.  The zloty of Poland also means golden. The som, used by the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan means pure and implies pure gold.

Lübeck gulden 1341

The birr of Ethiopia means silver. The ngultrum, the currency of Bhutan, derives from silver bit.

The hryvania of Ukraine comes from a word meaning mane, but might also have implied something valuable worn around the neck. The word later came to be associated with silver or gold ingots of a certain weight, but that seems to have flowed from its use as a monetary term.

The earliest source term for currency I am aware of is the daric, named by the original issuer after himself. The most immediately obvious current source-derived currency is the euro, which has replaced quite a range of currencies. Names of countries, or contractions thereof, are used by several countries as their currencies. The currency of Afghanistan is the afghani; that of Bolivia the boliviano; that of Lithuania the litas; that of Nigeria is the nairaa contraction of Nigeria; that of Sierra Leone, the leone; that of Vanuatu, the vatu.

fiorino d’oro (florin) 1347

The first post-Roman gold coin minted in commercial quantities in Western Europe was the florin or fiorino d’oro, minted by the city of Florence. The florin is the currency of Aruba. The forint of Hungary is also derived from the fiorino d’oro. The solidus and the hyperpyron (super-refined) of the Eastern Roman Empire was also known as the bezant (Byzantium) after the original name of Constantinople.

Portuguese half real C15th

Ducat came from ducal, real means royal, and is still the currency of Brazil as well is the source for riel, the currency of Cambodiarial, the currencies of IranOman and Yemen; and riyal, the currencies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The ariary of Madagascar also derives from riyal. The Swaziland linlangeni means member of the royal family (i.e. royal).

The Czech Republic‘s koruna means crown, as does Denmark‘s kroneIceland‘ kronaNorway‘s krone and Sweden‘s krona.

The original franc 1360

The franc originally meant free (and frank), and became associated with coins from the Rex Francorum (King of Franks) on early coins. The original franc coin celebrated the freedom of Jean II, captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers (so is apparently a pun). Francs are the currencies of BurundiComorosDemocratic Republic of CongoDjiboutiGuineaRwanda plus Switzerland (and Liechtenstein) and, in the form of the CFA franc, is the currency of France’s current overseas territories and of its former African empire; either as the West African CFA franc–the currency of BeninBurkina FasoGuinea-BissauIvory CoastMaliNigerSenegal and Togo–or as the Central African CFA franc–the currency of CameroonCentral African RepublicChadRepublic of CongoEquatorial Guinea and Gabon.

The rand, the currency of South Africa, comes from the Witwatersrand (“ridge of white waters”), the ridge Johannesburg was built on, and where most of the country’s gold deposits lie.

About the dollar
Dollar is most famously the currency of the US. The formerly US-administered territories of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau simply stayed on the US$ after independence. While East Timor just went straight onto the US$. Various local jurisdictions use the US$, such as the British Virgin Islands.

Countries sometimes “dollarise” because the local monetary authority proved to be too spectacularly incompetent in managing the preceding local currency. EcuadorEl Salvador and Zimbabwe fall into local mismanagement category (and other countries have also “dollarised” at various times). There are also countries where the US$ are as acceptable, or more acceptable than, the local currency.

Lots of countries have a dollar as their currency, apart from those already mentioned: AustraliaBahamasBarbadosBelizeBermudaBruneiCanadaCayman IslandsDominicaFiji, GuyanaHong KongJamaicaKiribatiLiberiaNamibiaNew ZealandSingaporeSolomon IslandsSurinameTaiwanTrinidad and TobagoTuvalu. Various Caribbean nations share the East Caribbean dollar. The tala of Samoa is dollar in Samoan. Most of these are former territories or protectorates of the British Empire–apparently, dollar is the preferred currency term for “not the pound (anymore)”.

Joachminsthaler 1525, the original dollar

Dollar may be the most widely used name for currency units (followed by franc), but it has a remarkably specific origin. In 1520, the Kingdom of Bohemia began to mint coins from silver mined in St Joachim’s valley, or Joachminsthal (modern day Jáchymov). The coins became known as Joachminsthalers. Which became shortened to thaler (thing or person from the valley), which became a very widely used coin name. Most famously, in the Maria Theresa thalerThaler became the Dutch daaldar and English dollar.

So, the tala of Samoa is actually closer to the original derivation than is the English dollar.

It was also a bit surprising to discover how large Rome and Portugal loomed in Islamic currency names: between lira, dirham, dinar and various derivations from real, the glory that was Rome and the brief Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean seems to have left quite a monetary mark. Though less surprising given that Rome loomed so large in Islamic history, and the Ottomans had pretensions to being the Islamic successors to Rome, while the current-day users of derivatives of real have a long history of not being keen on the Ottomans.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. conrad
    Posted October 21, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating — I love the British Museum for this as they have a great collection of coins amongst their great collection of everything (the guys at MONA have some nifty ones too).

  2. Posted October 22, 2014 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks. I had a hypothesis and I thought I had better check it and the easiest way to do that was simply go through the Wikipedia list of all circulating currencies. (I ignored the ones which are not from generally recognised entities–apart from Somaliland, because I think they should be recognised.)

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