A lot of books and blogs on etymology target odd words, many that you’ve never heard of, nor ever will again. These can be provocative. But for Word Odyssey, I prefer common, everyday words, words we take for granted, but which carry a rich history that is not commonly known. Now, there’s hardly an American English word more common than dollar. Day in and day out, dollars fly in and out of our wallets—mostly out, it seems. But what the heck is the origin of that word? The “doll” in dollar doesn’t sound like anything familiar, except a plastic toy baby, which wouldn’t be a likely candidate to have led to the ubiquitous unit of American currency. And the “ar” ending of dollar isn’t a very common suffix, either.
So what’s up with the dollar? Here’s the story…..
In the mountains of Bohemia that separate Germany and the Czech Republic there is a splendid valley—in German, “thal” means valley, which shares a root with the English dale—known as Joachimstal. That name comes from St. Joachim, who was named in the apocryphal Gospel of James—which is not included in the Bible—as the father of Mary, the mother of Jesus. After silver was discovered in the hills surrounding Joachimstal, in 1516 Count von Schlick, a local strongman, began minting silver coins with St. Joachim pictured on one side. These coins soon became known as “Joachimstaler Groschen”, with “groschen” meaning “unit.” Well, that’s a mouthful, so before you can say Joachimstaler these coins came to be called simply thalers.
Silver thalers circulated throughout Europe. In England the spelling and pronunciation was Anglicized to dollars. Other European nations minted their own silver coins, similar in size and shape to the thaler. One such coin was the Spanish piece of eight, which was minted in Mexico and South America, and which became widespread as an international currency. In the English-speaking world, these pieces of eight were called “Spanish dollars”, and were the most popular form of currency in England’s North American colonies. In fact, during the American revolution, Spanish dollars were used to back paper currency issued by the Continental Congress. So naturally, when the United States was established, the currency was given the familiar name dollar, and it’s been known as that ever since.
But what about that ubiquitous dollar sign: $, which looks like a capital “S” with two vertical bars through it? There are several stories as to how that came about, but the two most likely explanations revolve around the Spanish dollar. The coat of arms of the Spanish Holy Roman Emperor Charles V included the twin pillars of Hercules, which were entwined with an “S” shaped ribbon. This coat of arms was depicted on the reverse side of the Spanish dollars.
One theory is that the dollar sign derived from a shorthand notation for these twin pillars, with the “S” shaped ribbon turned right side up. A second, better documented theory is that the dollar sign comes from a shorthand for pesos, which was symbolized with a “P” with an “s” beside it—overlap those two letters and you get something like $.
In either case, $ first appears in the 1770’s. After the U.S. was established, in short order the dollar sign became the customary symbol of the almighty dollar.
As a coda, I’m going to return to the home of the dollar: the mines of Joachimstal. The silver eventually played out, but it was discovered that the mines contained uranium. In fact, Marie Curie isolated the element radium from ore taken from Joachimstal. After World War II, Joachimstal became a part of Czechoslovakia, but was dominated by the Soviet Union, which needed uranium for atomic weapons. To mine the uranium, thousands of political prisoners were put to the task, and thousands died. Finally, in 1963, the mine was mercifully closed. Today, Joachimstal has once again become a quiet valley.