In October of last year, I wrote a thing in which I needed some coins to appear. I immediately wondered: “what should they be called?” Sure, I could just use “pennies”, or “cents”, but here was on opportunity for world-building, damn it!
Because I overthink things, I immediately went, “Well, what do other people name coins after?” And after a little research, I found an answer, and kept writing.
But the question stuck around. I’ve occasionally wondered the same thing in the past: where does the word “dollar” come from? What about “pound”? Or “franc” or “mark” or “rouble” or “yen”? I decided that this time, I wouldn’t let the thing go. I’d do a survey - I’d have a look at what coins I knew, find out where they derived their names from, and I’d make a list.
And that’s (broadly) what happened. I started writing this article. I had a look through Roman and Byzantine and European history, pulling out coins, finding out what they were named after, and slotting them into the article. It was very quickly apparent that people named coins after the same things, time after time: after weights or lengths or materials, or what was printed on the coin or occasionally, who issued it.
But life happened. I got a job. I had to deal with Christmas. I had to find somewhere to live. I left that previously-mentioned job and found another one. I moved cities. What I’m saying is, I have excuses. And of course, while this post sat, half-finished, in my drafts folder, I felt like I couldn’t write anything else, because this work was not yet done.
The article became the thing I’d pull out at parties:1 “Oh yeah, I’m going to write that blog post about coins one day, I swear!” Then it became the albatross around my neck.
But finally, finally, at four and half thousand words, it’s done. It’s not comprehensive, it’s not particularly well-researched, and it doesn’t cite its sources: but if you want a quick run-down on how to name coins in your favourite constructed world, it should hopefully provide a few examples.
(And I’ve now got another book on my wishlist, because everyone needs a dictionary of coins in their house.)
But first, some notes on the research
This is kind of my first foray into numismatics (that is, the study of money). Almost everything I’ve collated has come from Wikipedia, which is not the best source of information but is right there and freely available. If I were persuing some sort of arduous research project, I would do the right thing and use Wikipedia as a good jumping-off point for any number of other sources that are likely to be more authoriative. But I’m not, so I didn’t.
You’ll also notice that all of my examples are heavily skewed towards European (or close-to-European) examples. Part of this is because I know a lot more European coins than any other sort: when you’re exposed to European stories, settings, etc., of course you’re doing to recognise denari and marks over ban liang and koban. However, as far as I can ascertain, there do seem to be a lot more coins hanging around Europe than other areas, regardless of my exposure. Part of this might just be because there were so many different countries and people all struggling to find their own identities in Europe, meaning that each individual country desperately wants to make up its own name for the lumps of metal they’re pushing around. And finally, other bits of the world just don’t get this fascination with shaped bits of metal. The Mayans got along fine with barter and cocoa beans, for example, which meant no fancy names for coins in their language.
Regardless, I’ve tried to add in non-European sources where I have them.
That’s enough disclaimer! How should you name your currency?
Measures of weight
If in doubt, name your principal coin after your main unit of weight. The pound is a good example of this, originally meaning one pound (by weight) of silver. But you also have the lira, which comes from the Latin libra, meaning a pound,2 and which has also given us the Portuguese dinheiro. The Japanese give us the ryo and the Chinese the tael and liang, again units of weight which were used as markers for currency, while the Greek mina and talent also come from certain units of weight. Similarly for the Ukranian hryvnia, the Thai baht, the Mozambique metical, the Mauritanian ouguiya, the German mark. This practice stays with us for quite some time: the Byzantine empire minted the hexagram to find its war with Persia, each coin being struck to weigh six grammata.
The Middle East also has the shekel, which descends directly from the Hebrew SHQL, meaning “to weigh” – this name also travelled through Greek to become the Persian siglos. Other coins whose names derive from the act of weighing or balancing, rather than an actual unit of weight, include the old Russian denge or Kazakhstani tenge (meaning “balance” or “equilibrium”).
There’s plenty of other places that just use the term “weight” to mean coins as well: for example, the stater, an ancient coin used in various regions of Greece, literally means “weight”, as does the Spanish peso.
Some places just plain used weights of metal as currency - these aren’t really coins, just glorified barter. The Egyptians, for example, had the deben, a weight of gold or silver, which they used as a form of protocurrency.
What other measures could you name coins after? All sorts! The Greek obol comes from the name of a “spit” of metal - originally, the coin would be worth one of these standardised lengths of metal, which were themselves the precursor to currency. Oh, and the Greek drachma comes from drássomai, meaning “to grasp”: one drachma was worth a “fistful” of six metal sticks. Once more, these currencies produced offspring: the Middle Eastern dirham and the Armenian dram both come from the word drachma.
The Russian ruble has its roots in the Slavic rubit, meaning “to chop”. Historically, a ruble was a piece of a certain weight chopped from a silver ingot. So it’s kind of like a measure. In Japan, scrip currency (mainly used during the Edo period) was often measured in units of koku, which was regarded as the volume of rice required to feed one person for one year.
A number of other cultures named their coins after measures of barter. The Aztec empire almost formed currency from lengths of cotton: the quachtli was one standard length of cotton, and was used as a standard item for trade. The Croatian kuna is named after the pine marten, whose pelt was used as a unit of value and barter in medieval times. Meanwhile, Ghana and Papua New Guinea have both named their currencies after cowry shells or other shells used for currency: in Ghana, the cedi, and in Papua New Guinea the kina and toea.3
The Tongans, however had no concept of currency until European colonisation. Upon encountering coins, most Tongans assumed they were small tokens or playing pieces for games, and called them pa'anga (a type of bean used as a playing piece in a traditional Tongan game). This stuck when the country introduced its own currency: they kept the name either through tradition, or as a wry reflection on how silly money really is.
Divisions and multiples
This one, as you might expect, is incredibly common. The cent comes straight from Latin centum, meaning “hundred”, and usually indicates a hundredth-part of the main currency: see also the Italian centisimi, the Spanish centavo, and the French centime, the Algerian santeem, and so on, and so on. The Bulgarians have the stotinka, the Albanians the qindarkë, and the Thai the satang, which all mean “one hundredth”. The Vietnamese hao comes from Chinese, where it means “one tenth”.
But the divisions aren’t always so decimal: in English, our farthing comes from the old English forðing meaning “fourth part”, and the Byzantines had the tetarteron, which meant the same thing; the Russian altyn means “six”, as it was worth six half-dengas. The Mauritanian khoum, one of the two only non-decimal subdivisions in current use, comes from the arabic word meaning “one fifth”, and the Chinese wu fen coin mean “five parts”.
The Romans and Greeks liked to do the opposite, building up from a small unit of currency. For example, Greece had the didrachm, the tetradrachm, and so on; the Roman denarius (from which we get the French denier, the Spanish dinero, the Portuguese dinhero, and the Arabic dinar) comes from the Latin dēnī, meaning “containing ten”, combined with aes, a smaller Latin coin.4 The sestertius follows a similar pattern, being worth two-and-a-half asses. This practice also extended to the Byzantine empire, which ended up minting the miliaresion (i.e. “one thousand”). The Portugese followed this pattern for some of their coins: the dobra (meaning “double”, now the offical currency of São Tomé and Príncipe) was a heavy gold coin worth two johannes. The Japanese did this as well, minting the ichibuban (“one bit”) and the nibuban (“two bits”).
Some places weren’t as exact: the Spanish peseta comes from the diminutive of peça, a Catalan word meaning “piece” or “fraction”. The Turkish para had a similar origin, meaning “piece” in Persian. The Shekel had a couple of subdivisions: first the pruta, which is a borrowing from Mishanic Hebrew where it means “a coin of small value”, and then the agora, a word with a biblical origin, which means “piece” or “bit”. Some languages are a bit more poetical: the Russian pul comes from the Persian pūl meaning “small change”, while the Armenian Luma means “a small constribution”.
And in some languages, the original meaning of the division has become divorced from the current meaning. The Hindi paisa or baisa is one hundredth of a rupee (in India, Nepal, and Pakistan) or a taka (in Bangladesh), but originates in the Sanskrit term padāṁśa, meaning “one quarter”. Originally, the paisa was one quarter of an anna, which in turn was equal to one sixteenth of a rupee. Following decimalisation in the 1950s and 60s, however, the anna disappeared from circulation and the paisa was transformed from a coin equal to 1/64th of a rupee, into one with value equal to a hundredth.
Decoration on the coin
It makes sense that once you have a currency up and running, you’ll stop naming coins after basic things like weights and start naming them after what they look like. Plenty of people have done this: the Bulgarian lev, for example, means “lion”, which features prominently both on the Bulgarian coat of arms, and on their coins (see also the Moldavian leu). Greek city-states minted their own obols and drachmae, and each was known based on whatever was imprinted on the coin (owls, turtles horses, etc.). Even as late as 1828 you got modern Greece using the phoenix, once it had declared independence from Ottoman Turkey.5 The French frank (also the franc or frange, depending on where you are in Europe) comes from a coin introduced in 1360 to pay the Ransom of King John II of France. The coin showed him on a richly-decorated horse, earning it the name franc à cheval (meaning “free on horse” in French).
Crosses often pop up on coins in Europe - unsurprising, given the prevalence of Christianity in the region. In the last days of the Byzantine empire, the stavraton was introduced: it showed the Emperor holding a cross-shaped scepter, and was probably named after this cross (Greek stavros). The kreuzer was a silver coin used in the Southern German states prior to the unification of Germany. These coins were stamped with a cross (“Kreuz”), from which they got their name. Similar, the Portugueuse cruzado, minted by Afonso V in 1453 to raise funds for the Crusades, has a cross on it.
There’s plenty of other, more isolated examples: the Russian kopek is is named after the diminuitive form of the Russian kopyo, or spear: originally, the coin had an image of a horseman with a spear on it. The French/Italian gigliato displayed lillies (or giglio) wrapped around a cross. The Latin victoriatus shows the god Victory placing a wreath upon a trophy.6 In a more modern context, the Croatian lipa is named after the Linden tree that appears on it.
Describing the coin
If you don’t care about what’s on your coin, you can always name the coin after its shape or material. The Roman aureus is made of gold, as the name suggests; similarly with the Persian daric,7 the Polish złoty, and the Middle High German gulden. The Roman argentum was made of silver, as were the Indian rupee (from the Sanskrit rūpaa), the Madagascan ariary, and the Ethiopian birr.8 The Roman as (the base unit on which the denarius and the sestertius were originally based) came from the Latin aes rude, meaning “rough bronze”, while the Vietnamese dong comes from the Chinese đồng tiền, or “copper”. The Portuguese are a little less ready to commit to a metal: their mealha comes from the Latin metallum, simply meaning “metallic”.
Sometimes material isn’t enough to describe a coin: maybe you’d like to comment on the coin’s size. The groschen was used in a number of German-speaking countries from the Middle Ages onward, and its etymology (along with the English groat, the Czech groš, the Polish grosz, and the Ottoman qirsh) runs back to the Italian denaro grosso or “large penny”. Similarly, the Haitian gourde comes from the French gourde meaning “heavy”. The Japanese have the oban, a large gold coin “plate” used during the Tokugawa Shogunate. Its name just means “large”: contrast with the koban, another coin whose name means “small”. The Greeks also like talking about their small coins: the Greek lepton, historically the smallest division of currency, is “small” or “thin”. The Chinese are a bit more poetic about theirs: the yu jia, a small coin of low value, meant “elm seeds”.
Another common signifier is how “fine” a coin is (i.e. how much of it is precious metal, as opposed to filler like nickel or tin). This seems to have been a point of contention around Europe, right as the Roman Empire was starting to falter: given how countries were debasing their coins on a year-by-year basis, it’s no real surprise that anyone minting coins wanted to advertise how nice they were.
The solidus is a classic example of this naming scheme: the coin, originally minted in the Late Roman Empire, is named “solid”, due to the high proportion of gold in it.9 As Europe muddled through the Middle Ages, the solidus became more and more debased as Kings and Emperors tried to eke more money out of their countries: this resulted in the minting of the hyperpyron (“super-refined”) in the Byzantine Empire in the late Middle Ages. The hyperpyron was also sometimes called the bezant, which just means “Byzantine”. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have the som, which comes from the Turkic word for “pure”.
Some unimaginative cultures have named their coins after their shape - even when the shape of their coins is perfectly obvious. The Chinese yuan just means “round object” (and it’s where we get the Korean won and the Japanese yen from), as does the Mongolian tögrög. The Banladeshi taka, meanwhile, comes from the Sanskrit ṭaṅka meaning “stamped coin”, while the European name for the Turkish kurush was the piastra, which just means “plate of metal” in Italian.
Finally, if you have no other option, you can just give the coin a name based on how it feels or looks. The Byzantine Empire gives us the trachy, a bowl-shaped coin used in the 11th-14th centuries, whose name means “rough” or “uneven”. The Malaysian ringgit comes from an old Malay word (no longer used in other contexts) that means “jagged”, referring to the serrated edges of early Spanish silver dollars. The tarì is an Islamic coin that was minted in Malta, Sicily, and Southern Italy, and its name simply translates to “fresh” or “newly minted”. And the English shilling, the descendent of the solidus, comes from Proto-Germanic skillingoz-, which may have come from skell- “to ring”. Alternatively it may have come from (s)kel-, “to cut”, in which case its origin is probably closer to the ruble above.
While we’re talking about ringing, it’s worth mentioning Hungary, which had the pengő, csengő, and kongó (which mean “ringing”, “clinking”, and “pealing”, referring to silver, gold, and copper coins respectively). As well as winning the award for the most onomatopoeia in coin-naming, the pengő also wins the award for the highest recorded rate of inflation: at its peak, prices would double every fifteen hours. When it was replaced by the forint in 1946, the exchange rate was 4×1029 pengő = 1 forint.
Naming coins after youself seems like a bad idea, but people have tried it. Doge Niccolo Tron of Venice gave us the tron, which was pulled from circulation after he died. The Byzantine michaelaton was, in reality, any coin struck by one of the nine Emperors Michael. Most of these are named after Michael VII Doukas, since his successors proceeded with another round of debasement. The michaelaton therefore stuck around less because people liked Emperor Michael, and more because the coins actually held their value. The Persian and Iranian abbasi is named after the Safavid shah Abbās I, who originally issued them: originally struck at the beginning of the 17th century, they remained in circulation until the early 1900s, so presumably he did something right.
The Romain antoninianus looks like a pretty open-and-shut case of naming a coin after someone - in this case, one of the several Late Roman Emprerors named Antoninius. In fact, we have no idea what these coins were called - a somewhat unrealiable document written of the same time calls an unknown silver coin “Antoninianus” and it seems that numismatists kind of went “why not?”
(On a somewhat unrelated note, the antoninanus is a good example of how currency can be systematically debased over the course of its existence. When introduced in 215 C.E., the Antoninanus was mainly silver; over the following years, money-hungry emperors re-issued the coin at lower and lower fineness (i.e. precious metal content) in order to make money on the back of a silver-starved empire. By the 270s, the coins were almost entirely bronze, and practically worthless.)
It seems like it’s a better idea to have others name their coins after you. For example, the Albanian leka is named after Alexander the Great, whose name is shortened to Leka in Albanian, and the Tajik somoni is similarly named after the founder of Tajikstan, Ismoil Somoni. Southern and Central America in particular made a habit of this: the Bolivian boliviano is named after Simón Bolívar (as is everything in Bolivia), while the Costa Rican colón, the Nicaraguan cordoba, and the Panaman balboa are named after the explorers/conquistadors Christopher Columbus, Francisco Fernández de Córdoba, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Breaking the pattern, the Honduran lempira is named after a Lenca warlord who led a resistance movement against the Spanish.
Some coins get named after a group of people, rather than a particular person. This is often the case if a culture or caste are in charge of minting coins, or if they bring their own coins to a country; for example, the Spanish maravedí, a form of the Arabic dinar, was originally minted in spain by the Moorish Almoravids (from which it gets its name). The Paraguian guaraní, on the other hand, is named after the indigenous Guaraní, whose culture and language are still highly influential in the country.
It’s a lot easier to name your coin after a title or official position, than a person. The ducat, prevalent around Europe between the Late Middle Ages and the early twentieth century, just means “the duke’s coin”. The Spanish real comes from the Latin nummus realis, meaning “money of the king”. The krona (also krone, kroon, and koruna), meaning crown (i.e. showing the king) appeared all over Europe. And, of course, there’s plenty of kings and emperors who’ve put their weight behind coins by making them “standard”: the Byzantines had both the basilikon (“Imperial coin”) and the histamenon (“standard coin”).
Some of the best stories seem to stem from coins named after places. The dollar, for example, comes from the Bohemian “Joachimsthaler”, a coin from Joachimsthal or “Joachim’s Valley”. Joachimsthal had many silver mines, and the coins were minted there starting in 1518. At the time of minting, silver was very rare in Europe: people had been mining since Classical times and there was only so much to go around. Much of the silver currency in circulation had been traded to the east in return for silks and spices, and with constant wars in Europe, currency had been in a continual cycle of debasement for some time.
As soon as Joachimsthaler coins started circulation, a number of copy-cats sprung up - each named after the “Thaler” or valley they came from. These coins, collectively, became known as Thalers or (in Czech) Tolars. And from their (via Dutch) we get the dollars we’re so familiar with now.
The South African rand has a similar story - it’s named after the Witwatersrand or “White Waters Ridge” in Johannesburg, where most of South Africa’s gold is found.
There’s plenty of coins that get their names from where they’re originally minted, rather than where they were mined. The florin, as well as the Hungarian forint, both come from Florence, as Florentine coins were popular with merchants during the Middle Ages. The tornesel, a silver coin prevalent in Europe in the Middle Ages, takes its name from “denior Tournois”, or “denier of Tours”. The Persian lari, a form of currency resembling a ten-centimetre-long piece of silver wire, flattened and bent into the shape of a “C” (and the Maldives laari, a more normal-looking coin), is named after the town of Lar in Southern Persia (now Iran) where they were first produced. More romantic is the Eritrean nakfa, which was named after the town of the same name in which the struggle for Eritrean liberation started.
We’re starting to get into the less popular methods of coin naming here. People tend to name coins after events only once the infrastructure of civilisation – actual currency, governance, language – have got settled. In other words, it’s less a bunch of people going, “What do we call this strange new substance by which we barter?”, and more someone in power wondering, “Oh, fine, what do we call this one?”
The Romans had a couple of these from their conquests: the dacicus, for example, was a gold coin issued by the Roman emperor Domitian to celebrate the Roman victory against the Dacians.
And then some coins get named after abstract ideas. There’s a number of these from the various African nations that achieved independence in the mid-twentieth century: for example the Angolan kwanza (introduced in 1977, following Angola’s independence) is likely to have come from the Swahili kwanza, meaning “beginning”, while Zambia and Malawi both use the kwacha (a Chinyanja or Chichewa word meaning “it has dawned”). Meanwhile, Botswana determined its currency by consulting the public, and ended up with the pula: the word means “rain”, a scarce resource in the country, and therefore of great value.
Bonus round: the penny
There’s no definitive source for the British penny or the German pfennig, but they do both come from the same root: the use of the word “penny” is first attested in 1394, as a variant of old English peni, although we also see pennig, penning, and pending in use. There’s a lot of cognates among other Germanic languages. It might come from the Old High German pfant meaning “pledge or debt”, although it could also have come from Old High German panning meaning “frypan” (due to the shape of the coin), or even from ponding, a borrowing of the Latin pondus (“pound”). One other possibility is that it comes from the Punic PN,10 meaning “face”, as early Carthiginian currency often featured the face of Tanit, goddess of fertility on it. Who knows? But it’s worth noting that not every word for money needs a clean-cut origin.
Finally, a conclusion
So there we have it! It’s not exhaustive, but it’s hopefully a good overview of the kinds of patterns you see in the real world. There’s definitely some patterns worth noting here, if you haven’t spotted them already: early civilisations almost invariably name their coins after measures - the measures that the coins represent (whether that’s weight or quantity or length). Later coins are often named after divisions, multiples, or sizes (tenth-coins, or six-coins, or big-coins, or small-coins; silver-coins or gold-coins). Once things are settled, new coins will be introduced: their names probably depend on the context of their introduction. Adding a new coin to fill a gap? Call it a “big coin” or a “small coin” or a “bronze coin”. Adding it to set a standard? Call it a “standard coin” or a “royal coin”.
Newer countries get to name their coins differently: perhaps by mangling someone else’s coin names, or maybe just by naming them after where those coins came from. As currency becomes vital to civilisation (and thus, it seems, a more well-known concept), names start to get less fundamental: when you’re introducing currency because it’s the done thing, you could name it after a famous place or person, or where it’s mined or minted, or even an idea, and everyone will be happy. We’ve seen this in our own history, both in the aftermath of European colonisation of South America, and also in the rise of independent nations in Africa.
So what did I end up calling my coins I needed a name for? They became alti, which means “six” in Turkish and a couple of other Turkic languages. That sure suggests that there’s a base coin as well, doesn’t it? I’ve no idea what that’s called yet…
Very nerdy parties ↩
Incidentally, this is why we use the symbol £ to represent pounds: it’s a glorified “L”, standing for libra. ↩
Funnily enough, this coin went through a recalibration in the middle of the second century BC to become worth sixteen asses, not ten. The name didn’t change, though. ↩
Although this coin didn’t last long, and was soon replaced by the drachma for reasons unrelated to its name. ↩
This coin was known as a tropaikon (“Trophy”) amongst Greek-speakers. ↩
The daric has sometimes been linked with King Darius of Persia, as well - apparently it’s a bit contentious as to whether it was named after the emperor, or whether that was made up later as a folk tale. ↩
Silver coins are often described as being “white” as well: see the Turkish akçe and the Georgian tetri, which mean “little white” and “white” respectively. ↩
The solidus has a bunch of history going for it: it stuck around until 755AD, when Pepin the Short introduced the l/s/d system that found its way to England via Offa of Mercia, and then stuck around until the late 20th Century. The s in l/s/d stands for either “shilling”, or (if you’re French) “sol” or “sou”. It was often represented by a long s (ſ), and over time slowly morphed into a forward-leaning slash, which gives us the old English system of denoting prices, as in “£1 19/11” for one pound, 19 shillings, and eleven pence. The ISO name for the full-width forward slash is “solidus”, as a result. While we’re at it, the word “solidus” also gives us the term for someone who will fight for pay: a soldier. ↩
Punic is an abjad - that is, you only bother to write down the consonants, and kind of infer the appropariate vowels. The best way of pronouncing PN is “pane” or “pene”, apparently. ↩
Leave a comment