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The history of dollar

The word dollar has a curious and convoluted history:

The history of the dollar

It is derived, as a word, from Thaler, which itself comes from the  Joachimsthal silver mine in Bohemia. In 1519, the silver from Joachimsthal was first used to mint the Bohemian coin Guldengroschen (‘great guilder’, made of silver but equal in value to a gold guilder). These coins were known as Joachimsthalers, and, over time, all coins became known as thalers, regardless of where they were minted.

The name ‘thaler’ is historically related to the tolar in Slovenia and Bohemia, the daalder (one and a half Dutch guilders) in the Netherlands, the daler in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway and the Maria Theresa thaler.

The Dutch daalder, known by its Anglicisation as ‘dollar’, circulated in the Dutch and English colonies in the Americas up until the mid-1700s, when it was gradually supplanted by Spanish eight reals (the ‘pieces of eight’ beloved of buccaneers), a coin that came to be called the ‘Spanish dollar’.

After the American Revolution, the dollar was adopted as the US unit of currency on the suggestion of Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson, due to the fact that the word was widely known but not British.

Another influence on the choice of the word ‘dollar’ was probably the Maria Theresa thaler, a silver bullion-coin that has been used in world trade continuously since it was first minted as a thaler in 1741. It was named after Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia from 1740 to 1780.

Interestingly, the word dollar was in use in the English language as slang or mis-pronunciation for the thaler for about 200 years before the American Revolution: coins known as dollars were in use in Scotland during the 17th century, and Shakespeare sometimes used it as a synonym for money, as in this bit of word play from The Tempest (II, 2) –

Gonzalo: When every grief is entertain’d that’s offer’d, Comes to th’ entertainer -
Sebastian: A dollar.
Gonzalo: Dolour comes to him, indeed: you have spoken truer than you purpos’d.

The symbol $ is used for the U.S. dollar as well as for many other currencies. It is thought that the symbol is derived from the Royal Spanish coat of arms, which bore the two Pillars of Hercules and the motto Ne Plus Ultra in the shape of an ‘S’. The Spanish were indeed the first to use the dollar sign to denote currency, and it was stamped on the pieces of eight, which may explain its adoption by the nascent USA.

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