Dual Language Schools: Biliteracy Word of the WeekThe Dollar: From a German Coin to the Most Powerful Currency in the World

04/2019
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There are only a couple of days left until taxes are due. As everyone is working themselves up trying to get their taxes ready to pay up to Uncle Sam, the conversation shifts to the refunds that people would get and how they are going to spend it. Money is necessary—some would go as far as calling it a necessary evil—for everyday living. The world around us revolves around money; or it revolves because of money. The world economy is, and has always been, dependent on the strongest currency of the time. In modern times, this is the American dollar ($). The dollar has been the currency of the United States since the late 18th century. However, the dollar is older than the United States.

First, the word dollar came to existence in the English language in the 1500s. The dollar came from the Bohemian thaler, short for Joachimsthaler. The Joachimsthaler was the currency that was used in the town of Joachimsthal in the Kingdom of Bohemia, which is now Jáchymov, Czech Republic. The name Joachimsthal means “Joachim’s valley”—Thal, which is German, is a cognate with the English dale. In the Thirteen Colonies, the dollar, as a name for the currency in use, referred to the Spanish dollar, or piece of eight, since that was the strongest currency of the time. The connection to the Spanish dollar and the dollar sign is evident. Some believe that the dollar sign came to be because Spanish coins on the reverse side of the coin depicted the Spanish coat of arms, which had the Pillars of Hercules and a banner winding around each pillar. Others believe that in writings of the time, the abbreviation of the currency, which in Spanish was called peso, and still is in most Latin American countries and the Philippines, was ps. Over time, the s and the p were written one on top of the other—superimposed, until we got the modern form—$.

Clearly, the Spanish Empire was the most powerful superpower in the world. So much that many countries adopted the Spanish dollar. In the 19th century, China adopted the currency and called it yínyuán—銀圓, or “silver circle.” Japan followed suit during the Meiji period, calling it yen—円, which is a borrowing from the Chinese yuán—圓, meaning round thing or circle.

The world revolves around money; whether one likes it or not. Money, or anything that has value, has power, and those who possess it as well. Also, money, like anything that human beings create, is part of our culture in a way that, although we may not see it in the surface, shapes how we connect with each other. We exchange ideas, items, foods, words. We navigated to unknown places of the earth to find what we consider worthy of our unquenchable thirst for anything innovative. Money has always been that fuel, because without it, nothing gets done.

Sources

Julian, R.W. (2007). "All About the Dollar". The Numismatist: 41.

Moreno, Álvaro J. (1965). El signo de pesos: ¿Cuál es su origen y qué representa? México: Álvaro J. Moreno.

Nussbaum, Arthur (1957). A History of the Dollar. Nueva York: Columbia University Press.