Saturday, 3 September 2011

Etymology of Ancient Currencies

Last month I looked at the etymologies of contemporary currencies and those recently superceded by the introduction of the euro. However there are many which have come and gone in history and they must also have an origin.

Lydia was a region in what is now western Turkey. They used the stater, a coin used in many parts of Greece. Made from electrum and silver, its name translates quite literally as 'weight'.

The ancient Persians used the gold coin known as the daric. The daric was introduced by Darius the Great of Persia during his reign of 522BC to 486BC. The figure depicted with a bow and arrow is either a great warrior or a king, their identity is unclear. What is clear is, despite the seemingly obvious naming of the daric from Darius, in reality it comes from a Persian word for 'gold'.

Ancient Greeks had the drachma. This term is ultimately from the ancient Greek verb drassomai meaning 'to grasp' and evolved to mean 'fistful'.

The Roman Empire used a number of coins. One is known to modern numismatists as the antoninianus, several documents refer to coins named after one Antoninus, although they have no notion as to the coin's appearance, nor do they know what name was given to the coin they now know by this name. The same is true of the follis, the etymology and the actual name is unknown. The argenteus was a silver coin with a name which meant 'silver' in Latin, similarly the aureus was a gold coin whose name meant 'golden'. The denarius is derived from the Latin deni or 'containing ten' as it was equal to ten asses, these being bronze (later copper) coins, and related to the Greek assarion and understood as 'a part thereof'. Latin dupondius describes itself as a 'two pounder'. The follis took its name from the word meaning 'bag' and usually of leather, suggesting the original value of same was an amount contained within said bag. A sesterius was equal to two and half asses, the name means 'two and a half'. The gold solidus is not difficult to see as meaning 'solid'. A talent began as a unit of mass, the name meaning 'balance, scale', which readily transferred to a coin of a certain weight.

Ancient Israeli coins begin with the gerah, derived from Aramaic word which translates as 'money'. We also find the prutah, which spoke of itself as being 'a coin of lesser value'. The best known coin is probably the shekel, equivalent to an Akkadian and/or Sumerian unit of weight first recorded over four thousand years ago. Lastly is the zuz, a word meaning 'to move' and suggesting a redistribution of wealth.

Brazilians once valued their cruzeiros, the name describing the constellation of the Southern Cross.

Peru had the inti, named after the Incan sun god Inti.

In China the tael was a unit of weight before it became a monetary value, this being a Portguese adaptation of a Malay word meaning 'weight'.

Ukranians once dealt in karbovanets, a word of doubtful etymology which has been said to describe the way these smaller value denominations were carved around the rim of a metal rouble or of a rod on which such coinage was recorded.

Montenegro saw the introduction of the perun in 1851. This was named after Perun, a supreme god of Slavic mythology.

Ecuador used to deal in the sucre until 2000. This monetary value was named after Antonia Jose de Sucre, the Venezueland independence leader and close friend of Simon Bolivar.

In Guinea between 1971 and 1985 banks issued various denominations of syli. The 10 denomation note featured Patrice Lumumba on the obverse, the reverse depicted a group of people carrying bananas; 25 saw a man smoking a pipe on one side, and a man with cows on the back; 50 and a bearded man is shown, turn it over to find a large dam and reservoir; while the 100 denomination note had Ahmed Sekou Toure on the front, and a steam shovel with two trucks on the reverse. Oddly none of these notes feature the 'elephant', which is what syli translates as.

Back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the Democratic Republic of Congo had the Katanga Cross. Made from copper it was named from the Katanga region where much copper was mined. However it is not the name but the extraordinary form this coinage took. As the name tells us this was not a coin as we would recognise it, this was an X-shaped ingot. Furthermore the size of these things was little short of astoonishing for coinage, although produced in various sizes, these were typically 20cms across and weighed a pocket-bursting kilogram each. Tossing these must be a nightmare!

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