Pound, dollar, yen… what is the origin of the currency name?

Whether you work with British pounds, US dollars or euros, the currencies that you use every day plays a big role in your profession. Money makes the world go around, they say.

But have you ever stopped to wonder what the origin of the currency name is? What is the etymology of our money? Let’s explore how some of the world’s major currencies got their names.

British pound sterling

With its origins lying as far back as 5th century Anglo-Saxon England, the British pound sterling is the world’s oldest currency still in use.

The word ‘pound’ refers to its weight. In Anglo-Saxon England, the pound was a unit equal to 240 silver pennies or the equivalent of one pound weight of silver. Etymologically, the word ‘pound’ comes from the latin pondo, which represents a pound weight of 12 ounces.

The ‘sterling’ part of the name refers to the hard stirling silver adopted in 1158 by King Henry II. Prior to this, the silver used in to mint coins was made of 0.999 (or 99.9 per cent) fine silver, which meant that coins would wear down quite rapidly. By contrast, stirling silver is 0.925 (92.5 per cent) silver (the rest of the weight is other metals, usually copper), which was more hard wearing and was used until 1816 in British coins.

Other currencies that are based on weight include the ‘peso’ (Spanish for ‘weight’, used across most of South America), the ‘ruble’ (Russian for ‘a chop’ or ‘a section’), the ‘Israeli shekel (Hebrew for ‘weight’) and the dinar (found in many Arabic countries, it refers to the Greek denarion, referring to ‘units of ten’).


Adopted in 1995, the name ‘euro’ is attributed to the Belgian history teacher Germain Pirlot, who sent a letter to the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, to suggest the name.The origin of the name is pretty self-explanatory – euro is short for for Europe!

The currency itself is based on the European Currency Unit, or ECU, which was a basket of the currencies of the European Community member states. The word ‘ECU’ was nearly used as the currency name, before the euro was installed on January 1, 1999.

United States dollar

Adopted as the name of the United States monetary unit in 1792, the ‘dollar’ is one of the most common currency names in the world. The word refers to the location from which the precious metal used for the currency was mined.

Used by the US – but also by Australia, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand and Singapore among others – the dollar origin dates back to the 16th Century, when coins minted with silver from mines in St Joachimsthal (which are now in the modern-day Czech Republic, but was then the Kingdom of Bohemia) became known as Joachimstalers.

The short-name for the silver coins was ‘thalers’, which morphed into ‘daler’ in Dutch. This was used as the name for the Dutch coin, ‘leeuwendaler’ (meaning ‘lion daler’, due to a lion being found on one side of the coin).

These coins were used throughout the Dutch East Indies and the Dutch New Netherland Colony of New York, and were colloquially known as ‘dalers’. When the United States established its own currency, it thus adopted the name ‘dollar’, as this term was already in use throughout the 13 colonies, overtaking the British-named ‘pound’.

Another currency that is based around location – i.e. the location from which the precious metal used in the currency was mined – include the South African rand, which refers to the ‘ridge’ in Johannesburg where the gold was mined.


The Chinese yuan, Japanese yen and Korean won all stem from the same origin, which is the Mandarin character for ‘round’ or ‘round coin’. Spanish traders would pay the Chinese with silver dollar coins, which were locally called ‘silver rounds’, due to their circular shape.


The franc is the former unit of currency of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, and is still used today in many West and Central African countries as well as in Switzerland.

The origin of the franc name dates to the 14th century, when the latin Francorum Rex, meaning ‘King of the Franks’, was inscribed on gold coins during the rein of Jean le Bon. This term was used on different gold and silver coins over the centuries, and became the official name of the French monetary unit in 1795.

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

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