Making Cents of Currency Symbols
Why do we represent dollars with “$”? Or with “”? Where does the word “dollar” even come from? There’s a lot of interesting history that went into making the currency names and symbols we know today, including the similarities between the British pound and the Italian lira.
These were coins minted in the 16th Century by Count Hieronymus Schlick of Bohemia. The coin was named after the ore mountains where the metal was mined[i]. Eventually this mouthful of a word was shortened to taler, and travelled through Europe to become daler (Norway, Denmark, Sweden), daalder (Holland), and dollar in English.
Spain manufactured silver coins worth 8 reales, which the Americans referred to as “pieces of eight” or “Spanish Dollars”. Just watch any pirate movie, you’ll hear them say it at least once. These were considered to be one of the first international currencies, being used in trade and commerce between many nations including countries in North America and Asia[ii].
Printed on these “Spanish Dollar” coins were the Pillars of Hercules, also called the Pillars of Gibraltar. The symbol presented as either a banner spread across two pillars, or as two pillars, each with their own banner wrapped around them. Look at the coin face on the left. You’ll see it.
The Pillars ended up looking a lot like $[iii], and is one accepted theory for the symbol’s origin. The Pillars then became synonymous with currency, and America continued to use the symbol after becoming independent and giving up the pound and pence for its own currency. Being rambunctious youngsters, the Americans based their new currency on the Spanish model as a deliberate “screw you” to their British[iv] parents.
There is another favourite theory for the origins of the symbol. Because where would we be in life without competing theories for everything? This theory credits American financier Oliver Pollock, who allegedly invented the symbol in 1778. When writing out pesos – the most common currency value at the time – he would often shorten it to ps, sometimes merging the two letters together in his handwriting.
Eventually, the symbol came out looking as it does today. At least, that’s according to Jim Woodrick, the Historic Preservation Division Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History[v]. Pollock’s friend, Financier Robert Morris, was the first to use the $ symbol in official documents and correspondence with Pollock, adopting the symbol to represent American currency officially by 1797.
Fun fact: The dollar symbol is nowhere to be found on American, Australian, or Canadian bank notes. Amusingly, these are also all countries who adopted the dollar after dropping the Great British pound.
Most countries who use the peso also use the $ symbol, with the exception of the Philippines, who use ₱. The Nicaraguan córdoba also uses the $ symbol (C$), as well as the Samoan pa’anga (T$), and the Samoan tālā, which is a transliteration of the English word dollar. Slick Schlick surely never imagined that the Joachimsthaler would come so far!
There is also the double-barrel dollar sign (), whose origins are uncertain. It likely also came from the Pillars of Hercules, however there are other theories. It could be an adaptation of the Morris/Pollock symbol, but there doesn’t seem to be any record to support this. Another popular theory is that it is a result of the coming together of ‘U’ and ‘S’ on money bags released by the United States Mint, eventually merging to become . This explanation seems unlikely, however, as the symbol was already in use before the founding of the United States.
The defunct Portuguese escudo, for instance, was represented by the symbol, called the cifrão. It also represents the Brazilian real (R), as well as the escudo currency of the Republic of Cape Verde. Although, at this point, the single-barrel and double-barrel dollar signs have become essentially interchangeable. Industry standard for text encoding and representation Unicode doesn’t even have a different code for each symbol. They consider the dollar sign and the cifrão to be the same symbol[vi], with their difference being only a matter of font design.
In Peru, the currency used to be the real. Then it became the sol. After that, it was the inti, then full circle back to sol again, introduced as the nuevo sol. When it was the real, it was also known as the peso, because why not? The symbol was simply Rs, similar to how Pollock wrote pesos.
The sol replaced the real 1863. Sol, is Spanish for “sun”, but is also derived from the Latin solidus, meaning “coin”. The symbol was a simple S/. It’s interesting to note that, rather than adding the slash through the S, and thereby imitating the common dollar sign, the slash was placed alongside it.
Due to inflation, the sol was replaced by the inti, named after the Inca sun god, in 1985. Notice a theme? Similar in form to the symbol for the sol, the symbol was I/.
Again, high inflation struck the inti, and after only six years in circulation it was replaced by the nuevo sol, which was officially registered as simply the sol in November 2015. The symbol harkens back to the original sol, with S/.
A contender for oldest currency would have to be the Greek drachma, but is no longer in use. It was used as a currency as far back as 1100BC. The word drachma originates from the ancient Greek verb drassomai, “to grasp”. This “grasp” represented six rod-shaped oboloi, or sticks of metal; either bronze, copper, or iron. The name obol was subsequently given to coins that represented one-sixth of a drachma.
The drachma was reintroduced into modern Greece three separate times: in 1832 before the formation of the current modern Greece; in 1944 after liberation from Germany; and in 1953, it was revalued using the Bretton Woods system. The symbol for the drachma, until it was replaced by the euro completely in 2002, was a stylised Dp, which represent the first two letters of the Greek lettering for drachma, δραχμή.
The euro (€) took over for a majority of European currencies between 1999 and 2002. The symbol’s design was chosen by the European Commission after drafts of 32 symbols were presented to the public.
The symbol itself was inspired by the Greek letter epsilon (Є), to reference the “cradle of European civilization”, as well as the first letter of Europe in the Latin alphabet[vii]. The two bars through the symbol are meant to represent stability.
Fun fact: Former chief graphic designer for the European Community, Arthur Eisenmenger, claims that he invented the euro symbol more than 25 years before it was to be introduced. He said he was simply designing something that “symbolized Europe”[viii]. This is despite the fact that Belgian designer, Alain Billiet, is credited with the current symbol’s design.
In fact, much like the euro, the Indian rupee symbol was chosen after an open, nationwide contest[ix]. The new symbol (₹) is designed after the ancient Devangari Ra and the Latin letter “R”[x]. The idea behind the redesign was to create a new cultural icon that would “represent the historical and cultural ethos of India”[xi]. And that’s really what currencies become to countries, cultural icons that represent who the country is, and what they stand for.
For the oldest currency still in use[xii], look no further than the Great British pound (GBP), which is represented by the £ symbol. The GBP is definitely a cultural icon for the British, and was used as far back as 775AD, which makes it over 1,200 years old[xiii]. No wonder they didn’t want to give it up when the euro came around.
The pound symbol is not to be confused with the ₤ symbol, which represents lira currencies. Well, except for the Turkish lira, which uses ₺ as of 2012. All of the above are, obviously, stylised “L” shapes, but the number of strokes through them matters.
But why does the pound look like £? Well, the name was adopted because 240 silver pennies were one pound weight of silver. That pound of weight corresponded to the Latin term libra pondo (for “pound weight”), and the symbol was modelled from a stylised “L” to represent that. This is, incidentally, where the “lb” comes from to represent weight in pounds[xiv]. Libra is also where the term lira came from, thus the similarities between the two currency symbols.
The calligraphy of the time led to the look of the stylised “L” that the pound symbol is known for. The first One Pound note was issued in 1797[xv]. You can see that “L” shape next to the “ONE” at the bottom left-hand corner of this note.
After that, it gained the dash though the middle to create the sign we know today. The horizontal dash which is common among many currencies – including the Japanese yen (¥), the defunct Italian lira (₤), and the Korean won (₩) – denotes that the symbol is short for a word. This is similar to how an apostrophe works in words like don’t and won’t.
Speaking of the yen (¥), which is actually pronounced en in Japanese, the word originates from the Japanese word for “circle” or “round object”. The stylised “Y” which represents the currency is likely a conceit to the fact that foreigners constantly pronounced the word as yen instead of en[xvi]. The word is a cognate with the Chinese yuan and Korean won. The Chinese had referred to Spanish and Mexican silver coinage as “silver rounds”, a name which made it to Japan.
The yen was officially adopted as the currency of Japan in 1871[xvii], during the Meiji period.
It was modelled after European monetary systems as, prior to a standardized national currency, individual fiefs (han) within Japan would issue their own currency, hansatsu. This caused a wide array of incompatible denominations with no fixed exchange rate. If you thought the exchange rate is confusion now, imagine going to the town over the hill and having your money be worth a different sum.
Fun fact: While it’s cool that putting a one-yen coin in a microwave makes it “squashy”, it will also cost you a ¥200,000 fine while in Japan[xviii]. It gets “squashy” because it’s made of 100% aluminium. This also makes it super light, which means it can float on water (if gently placed on the water’s surface).
Not all currencies have a stylised symbol, however. In fact, most currencies simply used the first one or two letters of the name of their currency to represent it. These include, among many others:
- German deutsche Mark (DM)
- Panamanian Balboa (B/.)
- French franc (F or Fr)
- Ethiopian birr (Br)
- Albanian lek (L)
- South African rand (R)
As time went on and different typographical styles came into prominence, currency symbols became more stylised as well. The calligraphy element was toned down for a more squared-off look, in order for printing presses and, eventually, computers to output them with little difficulty.
The roll-out of the euro symbol was the source of just such a difficulty. It was criticized by graphic designers, who said it’s release was not well managed. Jurgen Siebert, head of graphics software company FontShop in Berlin, said:
“The European Central Bank presented it as a logo. At the time, it hadn’t considered the technical consequences of it being incorporated into the everyday graphic language, and how it would translate to, say, computers or mobile phones.”
While outputting the symbols is easy with today’s computing power, any new symbol requires a full update of existing fonts. This, as anyone who has ever updated their computer knows, is a fundamentally frustrating prospect.
We’re pretty sure that this article isn’t exactly what people meant about becoming “wise about money”, but learning more about currencies and the relationship between them and their home countries can be valuable. Mind the pun.
[i] Dictionary.com, “It’s strange but true – your crisp ‘dollar’ comes from the word ‘Joachimsthaler.’ Here’s the story.”, August 14, 2010.
[v] Dan Hess for Atlas Obscura, “The Bankrupt Irishman Who Created the Dollar Sign by Accident”, November 23, 2015.
[viii] Kate Connolly for The Guardian, “Inventor who coined euro sign fights for recognition”, December 23, 2001.
[x] The Times of India, “Indian rupee gets symbol, joins elite currency club”, July 15, 2010.
[xv] Spencer Hart for Gizmodo, “Nine Things You Might Not Know About the Great British Pound”, November 13, 2014.