At Xpress Money, we encounter most of the world’s currencies almost every day. By virtue of our customers being spread across the far corners of the globe, we see currencies ranging from the United States Dollar to the Indian Rupee, the Filipino Peso, Chinese Yuan to the United Arab Emirates Dirham, Omani Riyal, Bangladeshi Taka, the Great British Pound, the Kenyan Shilling etc., amongst hundreds of other currencies that we deal with.
But have we ever paused to ask how these currencies got their names. Why was the very first dollar called a dollar? So let’s go behind the scenes and open up the history books to find out where a few of these currency names originate.
United States Dollar
It’s not just the US that names its currency the dollar. Even, countries like Australia, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, and Singapore have the same name for their currency. The origins of the term aren’t even English. Apparently, they originate in Low German or Flemish where “joachimsthal” was used to refer to Joachim’s Valley – which was a source of silver. Coins made from the Joachim mine became “joachimsthaler”, later shortened to “thaler” and eventually changing to dollar1.
Dirham isn’t originally an Arabic word. Sources have it coming from the Greek drachma. The Dirham was adopted as currency in the Islamic world around the 7th century. Today, only the UAE and Morocco use the term Dirham to name their currency2.
The origins of this are relatively simple. The rupee comes from the Sanskrit word for wrought silver – “rupaya”. This has evolved into the term rupee used by many countries in South Asia – including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
There’s a theme, developing – currencies are either named after the metal coins they were minted from, or for the weight they had. The peso is no different. In Spanish, it means “weight”. And while Spain has given up its former currency in favour of the Euro, the Peso lives on in areas once colonised by Spain – including Mexico and the Philippines.
Again, the pound makes reference to weight. In particular, it comes from the Latin term “pondus”, which translates to weight. What’s also interesting is the term lira – used by Turkey and previously by Italy. The lira is the evolution of the Latin “libra” – which means a pound as a unit of weight.
The Chinese Yuan originates from a Chinese character meaning “round”, or “round coin”. The Japanese yen and Korean won also derive from this character.
So there you have it. The next time you’re holding notes of global currencies in your hand, take a second to reflect on the contortions of language and history that have resulted in the modern nomenclature we use to name our currencies.