Currency signs – where do they come from?

The sign for a currency is a thing of excitement.

It jolts the sleepy shopper awake. ‘How much for milk!?’ It lures the feckless worker into a false sense of security. ‘How much per word? Oh, you meant in cents, not dollars.’

These little symbols have a lot of power. But where did they come from? In some cases, it’s simple. The Polish Zloty, for example, is marked ‘zl’. The Croatian Kuna is symbolised with ‘kn’, and named for the indigenous martin (like a land otter), whose skins were traded as currency in the Roman Baltic. It’s not always so simple, though.

Pound (£)

The symbol for the British Pound represents a unit of measurement, just as its spoken name does. The £ is a stylised capital ‘L’, taken the Latin word libra. A single libra in Rome would have been worth 12 ounces; it happens that’s where the British symbol ‘lb’ comes from (also called a pound) as well.

The two horizontal lines were added to make it clear this was the symbol for the currency, and not an ‘L’. The pound in question, by the way, is silver. The coin had the value of a ‘tower’ (350 grams) of silver.

Euro (€)

Perhaps obviously, the Euro is taken from its region, Europe. However, the symbol has a more poetic origin.

The ‘E’ comes from the Greek letter epsilon (ϵ). Although the symbol was crafted in secret, it’s believed this references Europe and Greece as the cradle of civilisation, and hints at Europe’s cultural prosperity, besides an economic one. The double bars symbolises the Euro’s stability – wishful thinking, for any currency.

Yen and Yuan (¥)

The Yen symbol features a ‘Y’, signifying both the first letters of the Japanese Yen and the Chinese Yuan. It also features the almost ubiquitous double bar symbol on top of it. It’s believed the reason for this is taken from another symbol for the Yuan, 元.  The two bars at the top were brought onto the Y, probably to differentiate it from the Roman ‘Y’.

The name, in case you wondered, means ‘round’, as in the round silver coins used as currency during the last Dynasty of Imperial China, the Qing.

Indian Rupee (₹)

Before this Hindi-esque sign, the Rupee was marked with an ‘RS’. The current rupee symbol was designed during a competition. Entrants sent in possible symbols to be used for the country’s currency. The winner was the 37-year-old Udaya Kumar, who currently works as an assistant professor at an infotech school in Guwahati.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Kumar said he intended the symbol as a cross between Devanagri (the script used for various Indian languages) and the Roman ‘R’, for rupee: “I looked at various Indian imageries that best reflected our culture,” he explains. “After researching them, I thought Indian scripts best represented our culture and were unique as compared to other scripts in the world. With Devanagri script, I also try to blend the Roman script to give a universality.”

Dollar or peso ($)

Lastly, the dollar sign, with perhaps the most interesting story.

As many will already know, before the United States came into being North America was split between into three: British, French, and Spanish. The British had the Eastern seaboard, the French had Louisiana (hence town names like ‘Baton Rouge’ and ’New Orleans’), and Spain had all of Mexico, the Great Plains and the Western coast up to Alaska (as well as much of South America).

The common explanation for the dollar sign is that it came from the abbreviated PS (peso) sign used in the Spanish territories. So, you have an S symbol with a P struck through it. Then, the P eventually became the single line struck through it.

A slightly more exotic answer exists however. In it, the line through the S sign come from the pillars in the Spanish Coat of Arms. These pillars were represented on the Spanish dollar (also called the peso de ocho, or pieces of eight), issued in 1497. These were legal tender in the US until the Coinage Act of 1857.

Jason Hesse is a journalist who specialises in writing about entrepreneurship and small business.

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