How 6 of the World's Major Currencies Got Their Names


by James Hunt

When you really think about it, money is strange. That's probably why we don't. The last thing the global economy needs is for us to collectively realize that a slip of paper or a metal coin doesn't have much (if any) inherent value and that it's all little more than a collective delusion. So rather than wax philosophical on the basics of world economics, we thought we'd look at something a bit more certain: where the world's currencies got their names.


When Congress established the mint in 1792, it continued the long-standing terminology of referring to our currency as dollars, though the word "dollar" itself has a convoluted history. It begins in the 1500s, when a Bohemian aristocrat named Count Hieronymus Schlick began to mint silver coins called "Joachimstalers." Joachimstal was the name of the valley where the silver for the coins was mined, and the suffix "-er" indicated their origin in the Germanic language (the same way a Berliner is a person—or a type of doughnut—from Berlin).

Shortened in German to simply taler, the word crossed over into various other languages: Swedish daler, Norwegian dalar, and Dutch Daalder. It was then applied to other coins, such as the Dutch leeuwendaalder (lion dollar) which, as you might imagine, depicted a lion. A quirk of the leeuwendaalder's metal content meant it weighed less than other large denomination coins and therefore became popular for trade, because it traveled more easily.

If you know your U.S. history, you would probably guess it arrived in the Colonies via New Amsterdam, and you'd be correct. Spanish Pieces of Eight were the same size and weight as "lion dollars," which is why they came to be known as the Spanish dollar, and were themselves widely distributed in the Spanish colonies. Hence, when the time came to choose a currency, dollars were already popular throughout the American continent and became the official one.


The British like to claim the Pound as the world’s oldest currency, dating back over 1000 years, to Anglo-Saxon Britain. The etymology of Pound Sterling is therefore uncertain, but the most probable origin for "sterling" lies with the Old English word steorra, which meant "star". British Normans added the diminutive suffix "-ling" to create a word meaning "little star," which was used as slang for a small silver penny. When issued in the Saxon Kingdoms of Britain, 240 "sterlings" were minted from a pound of silver. Payments were therefore measured in "pounds sterling," giving rise to the current name.

Unsurprisingly, the practice of naming currency after weight isn't restricted to the UK. Lira, pesos, and rubles are all derived from words related to weight.


Fairly straightforward, the Euro is of course derived from the word "Europe," and replaced the former ECU (European Currency Unit) in 1999.

But where did the name Europe come from? It can be traced back to a character from Greek mythology, Europa, that is of unknown origin, although folk etymologists have attempted to trace it to the word eurys, meaning “wide face” or a Semitic word meaning “the Region of the Setting Sun.” It's unclear how the name was attached to the continent, but Greeks referred to the area they lived in as Europa as far back as 522 BCE. Over time, the term's geographical limits were widened until they came to encompass the entire continent.


Introduced in 1871, the Yen's name is taken from the Japanese word "えん (en)," which means literally "round" and is related, linguistically, to both the Chinese yuan and the South Korean won.

Prior to this, the region—particularly China —traded silver by mass, and when Spanish and Mexican dollars reached the area they were known as "silver rounds" because of their shape, including in Japan. English-speaking visitors to Japan transcribed the word "en" as "yen," and indeed the responsibility probably falls on James Curtis Hepburn, an American missionary who produced the first authoritative Japanese-English dictionary and spelled all "e"s as "ye."

A later edition of the dictionary dropped the "y" from other words, but retained it for yen, indicating that it was probably in common use in that form, and its existing association with coins is undoubtedly why the modernizing Meiji government of Japan chose the name for its new currency.


As a unit of currency, the Franc takes its name from France, where it was the official currency between 1795 and 1999. In 1850 the Swiss Franc was introduced in Switzerland, taking its name from the original (probably as a result of the currency's existing popularity in the region).

The first francs were French gold coins minted in 1360 to commemorate the English government's release of King John II of France (and help stabilize the French economy during the Hundred Years’ War), and were only made for 20 years. The name was reused again for a silver coin issued between 1575 and 1641, after which point franc had become a common term for money.


Rupees are used in many countries on both the Indian subcontinent and Indian Ocean (not to mention The Legend of Zelda). Their name is derived from a Sanskrit word, rūpya, which specifically means "stamped"—as in silver that has been stamped to make it into a coin.

The currency has been around since the 1500s, when silver coins were called rupees, gold coins were called mohurs, and copper coins were called dams .

Big Questions
Why Do Honeycrisp Apples Cost So Much?

Apples to apples is no longer a valid comparison. As gastronomic writer Sarah Jampel at Food52 has observed, shoppers who prefer a premium fruit experience by opting for Honeycrisp apples can pay up to four times as much as they would for other varieties. When did Granny Smiths become the RC Cola to Honeycrisp’s Coke?

According to Jampel, the answer invokes the old law of supply and demand. There’s plenty of demand for the apple, but prices get engorged when there isn't enough to go around.

The scarcity is a result of the Honeycrisp’s eccentric nature. Introduced commercially in 1991 after being invented by University of Minnesota scientist David Bedford, who cross-pollinated seeds to create a more durable and winter-resistant apple, the Honeycrisp tree demands very specific soil and maintenance requirements. The fruit can ripen at various times, necessitating more frequent harvests; the skin is thin and delicate, so they must be trimmed off by hand. Many of the trees are so delicate they require a trellis [PDF] to support their branches.

All the extra labor means more time and money—the latter of which is passed along to the consumer.

Growers who didn’t anticipate the surging popularity of Honeycrisps were also caught off-guard. As trees can take up to six years to bear enough fruit for commercial purposes, the number of trees currently producing isn’t really proportionate to the level of demand.

That will change as more are planted, although it might be a little while before the Honeycrisp proves to be on the same economic footing as its Red Delicious counterpart. Before you celebrate a cheaper version, remember that growers looking to feed the market might opt to grow the apple in less-than-perfect conditions that could affect its famously crunchy taste. Enjoy it while you can.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

2017 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Research on How Crocodiles Affect Gambling and Other Odd Studies

The Ig Nobel Prizes are back, and this year's winning selection of odd scientific research topics is as weird as ever. As The Guardian reports, the 27th annual awards of highly improbable studies "that first make people laugh, then make them think" were handed out on September 14 at a theater at Harvard University. The awards, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, honor research you never would have thought someone would take the time (or the funding) to study, much less would be published.

The 2017 highlights include a study on whether cats can be both a liquid and a solid at the same time and one on whether the presence of a live crocodile can impact the behavior of gamblers. Below, we present the winners from each of the 10 categories, each weirder and more delightful than the last.


"For using fluid dynamics to probe the question 'Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?'"

Winner: Marc-Antoine Fardin

Study: "On the Rheology of Cats," published in Rheology Bulletin [PDF]


"For their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble."

Winners: Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer

Study: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," published in the Journal of Gambling Studies


"For his medical research study 'Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?'"

Winner: James A. Heathcote

Study: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" published in the BMJ


"For their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect."

Winners: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard (who delivered their acceptance speech via video from inside a cave)

Study: "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," published in Current Biology


"For studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee."

Winner: Jiwon Han

Study: "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," published in Achievements in the Life Sciences


"For the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat."

Winners: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres

Study: "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," published in Acta Chiropterologica


"For using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

Winners: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang

Study: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience


"For demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually."

Winners: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Study: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," published in PLOS One


"For showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother's vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother's belly."

Winners: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte

Study: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” published in Ultrasound


"For demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring."

Winners: Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli

Study: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," published by the BMJ

Congratulations, all.

[h/t The Guardian]


More from mental floss studios