Money: Origins and Meanings of Words

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Money makes the world go round…

People need and like to own stuff. With the development of trade in ancient times, it soon became apparent that a comfortable unit of perpetual value was needed to relieve things, since lamb chops and mackerels didn't fit easily in people's wallets. Adding to that there was a need to find something of universal acceptance - like precious metals. This is the point in history where the concept of 'money' emerges. A glance at the etymology of the word 'money' will reveal many aspects of the trading manners of the respective nations.

Every, or almost every, nation has its own money and its own term for it. One can learn quite a lot about the country and its history, the connections of everything with everything, when one knows what the respective word for 'money' really means. This entry will provide an overview1.

Money: Ten Cattle-Units of Shaped Metal for Penalty-fines

One can start with the English term 'money' which comes from the old French word 'monnaie' and means 'coin, money' - meanwhile the French use 'argent' for 'money' which means 'silver'. 'Monnaie' is a Latin heritage with divine roots, since the Romans minted their coins in the temple of goddess Juno Moneta - Juno the Advisor2. The Spanish and the Portuguese also use this term as 'moneda' and 'moeda' respectively for 'currency' or 'coin'. In these languages, the respective words for 'money' are 'dinero' and 'dinheiro', which come from the Latin word 'denarius', which was an ancient Roman silver coin and the most general currency of antiquity3. 'Denarius' comes from 'decem' for 'ten' - ten units. This is also the origin of the 'd' as an abbreviation for pennies. See entry Old English Money and Old Irish Money.

The Latin influence reached as far as the Ukraine, where money is called 'groshi', which comes from 'denarius grossus', a thicker form of the aforementioned denarius, which originated in 1172, in Genoa. 'Groshi' also appears in Polish, Czech and German, meaning a coin worth a tenth of the main currency unit. In pre-Euro Austria there were a hundred 'Groschen' to the Schilling.

Apart from 'denaro' the more or less direct descendents of the Romans, the Italians, frequently use the word 'soldi' for 'money', which comes from 'solidus' which was the name of a special golden coin (literally solidus means solid) - note that the term 'soldier' also evolved from there. The actual word for 'money' in Latin is 'pecunia' from 'pecus' or 'cattle' in English. Note that one still uses the word 'fee' in English (cf. the old English word 'feoh' which means 'cattle, property, money') which is related with German 'Vieh' for 'cattle' - the idea of using cows instead of plastic credit cards can also be found in the word 'capital', which comes from 'capita' and means a head of a herd.

The German term for money is, by the way, 'Geld', and comes from the verb 'gelten' which means 'to refund' or 'to pay' in a case of religious or legal affair, a penalty. The roots of 'gelten' are not quite clear. But it is remarkable that the idea of paying as a penalty, Latin 'pena', also gives origin to the Polish word 'pieniadze', Czech 'peníze', Slovak 'peniaze', and probably to the words 'penny' and the German 'Pfennig'. The general Scandinavian word for 'money' evolved from 'Pfennig' via 'penning', which was the currency in the Scandinavian countries from the tenth to the sixteenth century, to 'penger'. The Swedes spell it 'pängar', the Norwegians 'penger' and the Danish 'penge'4. The Latin penalty fee 'pena' also made it to the Russian language, where it stands for – surprise, surprise - 'penalty fee'.

The Russian term for money is 'den´gi', the plural form of 'den´ga', which isn´t used any longer, and has Turkic roots in the word 'tän´gä' (the modern Turkish word for money is 'para'). 'Tän´gä' was a silver coin and actually meant literally 'a squirrel’s fur', which had been used for trade back then. As a slight remark, remember that the US-American 'buck' comes from 'deers´ fur'. The 'tangä' is still used as a currency in Kazakhstan. The Turkmenish 'tenges', however, are just their equivalent for pennies. As all these countries were connected by the 'Silk-Route', it is not surprising to see designations for trading goods and payment commodities mixing up. In India the 'tenges' were replaced by 'rupees' in the 13th century. 'Rupee' is the word for 'money' and at the same time the currency and is derived from Hindi 'rupay' which comes from the verb 'rpam', 'to shape', which is also what the ancient Russians had in mind when they called their currency 'rouble', which stems from 'to shape' or 'to hack' a coin from a bar of silver ('rubit').

The 'shaping and forming' idea is also present in the term 'Yuan' - the Chinese currency. The oldest archaeologically proved use of money took place in China, so that the Chinese are probably the inventors of cash (there are archaeological findings from 2000 BC). Their cash was the shells of cawrie snails that have natural holes in their middle, so they could be easily carried on ropes. Afterwards they changed over to the usage of metal coins, but they kept the idea of using ropes to carry their money and for that reason stamped square holes through the middle of the coins. The Chinese term for money 'qian' or 'tsien' (pronounced 'tshen') is composed of two smaller pictograms which mean 'metal' and 'rope'.

Money, unit of perpetual value

Summarizing the basic idea behind the word 'money' is a 'unit of perpetual value'. This was technically accomplished by the use of precious metals, in the beginning by weighing the metal, and then by minting standardised units, or chops, of that metal. This is probably the point where the words for 'money' started appearing in each language: for example through the used metal itself (argent), the weighing (denarius), the location of the minting (money), the process of shaping (rupee), the shape itself (qien), the equivalent value (den'gi, pecunia), the use of money eg. to pay fines (pängar). Although mankind is nowadays capable of wireless communication and cloning animals, it is still using 'those silver metal chops with the value of ten cattle units, or squirrel furs' to pay their fees.

1It is, of course, not possible to tackle the origins of the word 'money' for all existing languages (thousands) - additions and comments are welcome.2'monere' = warn, watch, give advice, make remember, cf. 'monitor'.3It is still used as a currency, the 'dinar', in many Arab speaking countries as well as in Albania.4For the most curious readers: The Finnish have, of course, their own words, 'raha' and 'varat'.

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