By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘dollar’ is, of course, widely used, not only in the United States but also in various other countries. Indeed, there are more than twenty different currencies around the world known as the ‘dollar’, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, the Solomon Islands, and, most famously, the US.
But what are the origins of the word dollar? How did this word come about in the first place, and how did it give its name to what is perhaps the most recognisable currency in the world?
And while we’re at it, what are the origins of the dollar sign ($)?
A ‘dollar’ comes from the English name for the German taler (sometimes spelled thaler), which was a large silver coin introduced in the sixteenth century.
This word was an abbreviation of Joachimstaler, a word literally meaning ‘of Joachim’s valley’. This is because the silver from which these German coins were made was mined near Joachimstal (now known as Jáchymov), in the Erzbegirge mountains along the border between Germany and what is now Czechia (formerly known as the Czech Republic).
John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, notes that the spelling dollar had become fairly standard by 1700, so that by the time the word was adopted in 1785 as the name for the main unit of currency in the new country known as the USA, it was easy enough to co-opt the term ‘dollar’, especially since the word ‘dollar’ was in widespread use in the Americas, especially among the Spanish colonies, throughout the eighteenth century.
So it was largely due to Spanish colonisation that the Founding Fathers seized upon the European ‘dollar’ as the name for their new currency for their new country. After all, given their recent war with the United Kingdom, they were hardly going to name their currency after the British pound.
What about the dollar sign or symbol, then? Oddly enough, there’s a Spanish link there, too. This symbol ($) first turned up in the 1770s as a scribal abbreviation ‘ps’, used in business documents to refer to the Spanish American peso. In North America, this currency was known as the ‘Spanish dollar’.
Over time, scribes began to write the s over the p, rather than merely alongside it, and from this the familiar $ symbol developed. As well as referring to the Spanish dollar, this new ‘dollar sign’ was also used in reference to the new US dollar when that was adopted in the 1780s.
How did the phrase ‘the almighty dollar’ come about? We have one of the great pioneers of American literature to thank for this phrase. Washington Irving (1783-1859) is often known as ‘the father of American literature’, and is now best-remembered for writing both ‘Rip Van Winkle’, about a man who falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains and wakes up twenty years later, and ‘Sleepy Hollow’, memorably adapted for film by Tim Burton.
Named in honour of the (future) first US President, Irving has had a huge influence on American writers for two centuries, and has also been responsible (indirectly) for the name of the knickerbocker glory dessert and, even, the word ‘knickers’ (both words come from Irving’s fictional creator, Diedrich Knickerbocker). But Irving also coined this phrase ‘the almighty dollar’ in his 1837 story ‘The Creole Village’, and the phrase has been in common circulation (no pun intended) ever since.
As for the phrase ‘the sixty-four thousand dollar question’, that was the name of a US gameshow. However, originally, in the 1940s on the gameshow Take It or Leave It, the top cash prize was just sixty-four dollars: as Julia Cresswell notes in The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, inflation was responsible for the 1000x increase in the prize money, and in spawning a now famous phrase.
Curiously, owing to UK rules about prize limits on British gameshows, when The $64,000 Question was remade in the UK, the top cash prize was just £6,400 – though this was still, as the TV’s voiceover announcer proclaimed, ‘TV’s biggest cash prize’.