Posts Tagged money

World Building Question: Do You Need Change With That?

While I’m working on something rather larger related to maps and the like, I wanted to switch things up and look at the coins you might have in your pocket. Specifically, looking at the etymology of the names of the four most common US coins. But first, let’s start with the general concept of what to call subdivisions of the dollar.

Cent. This comes from the Latin word “centum.” This is an oddly important word when looking at the history of language, as the Indo-European languages are broadly divided into two groups based on their word for “hundred.” Centum languages are those in western Europe, including English, and satem languages spread through Iran and India. This is a whole discussion that I barely understand enough to expound on, but trust me, that’s how linguists divide the Indo-European languages. As for the word “centum,” Latin pronounced it with a hard k. The French, as they did with much Latin, softened the k to an s. They also dropped a syllable. The word then came to the British Isles with the Norman invasion as Old English became Middle English. If anything the use of the word “cent” is a shortening of “percent,” which fits more closely with the original Latin. When we talk about ten percent of the population, we’re talking ten out of every one hundred people. It does make it a linguistic oddity, as the meaning of the word has shifted from hundred to hundredth, which is a demotion of four orders of magnitude.

Penny. Penny is one of those funny words, in that linguists don’t have a solid origin for it. It may come from a word that meant “token.” The bit of the word’s history linguists can track ties it to the German word Pfennig, the pre-Euro division of the German Mark. It’s a word that has meant a small-value coin for centuries, but no one knows quite where it came from. It passed into English, and is currently used as the name of the smallest denomination coin in several English-speaking nations.

Nickel. The nickel was named after the metal which currently makes up 25% of the coin. Have one in your pocket? Pull it out. Look for the word “nickel” anywhere on there. You’re not going to find it. Instead it’s a five cent piece. Through all its incarnations, the coin has never borne the word “nickel” only “five cents” or “5 cents” or “V cents”. In common parlance it’s also been called the “half dime,” as the dime preceded the nickel by 70 years. Being the only coin minted in nickel, it was a natural nickname, and this was in common use by no later than 1919.

Dime. This again represents the move of a word from Latin to French to English. The original Latin is decima pars, which meant a tenth part. Again, this was a Latin hard k. Again, French softened the sound to an s and simplified the syllables, turning the word into disme in Old French, which referred to a tenth part or a tithe. When a ten cent coin was authorized by the United States government in the 1790s, the legislation still spelled the word as “disme”. The s disappeared no later than 1837 when the first ten cent coin with the word “dime” was minted.

Quarter. This one’s easy. As minted, the coin says “quarter dollar” and gets almost universally shortened to just the word “quarter.” It’s the only of the four major coins that is named after the modern English word for the portion of a dollar it represents. We don’t have tenths in our pockets, or twentieths, or hundredths, but we do have quarters. Of course, we also don’t call the 25 cent coin the “fourth.” English has a colloquial term for one fourth that it doesn’t have for any of the other fractions represented by modern coins. Unless you want to count half, as in the half dollar, but that’s mostly minted for collectible purposes. The word itself does made the same Latin to French to English transition (quartus to quartier to quarter), but unlike “cent” or “dime” the meaning of the word survives outside of coinage.

Four coins. One that comes from a word that’s always just meant “coin,” one named after a prominent metal in its minting, one after another language’s version of its value, and only one based on the modern English version of its value.

So what? Why am I talking about etymology of coinage?

Language is a funny thing. I’m sure I’ve said this before in the WBQ series. The point here is similar to the point that I made when looking at the names of the months, or names of days of the week, things that feel like they should have a uniform naming convention often don’t. It’s just one of those things to keep in mind when creating a world. In human languages, uniform naming conventions usually denote recently created words. But disjointed naming conventions speak of a broader and richer history of the language and of the world.

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