Friday, January 10, 2014

The source of the dollar

"I'm worried something'll happen to 'em before we can turn 'em into real money."
"What is 'real' money, Jack? Answer me that."
"You know, pieces of eight, or, how d'you say it, dollars --"
"Th -- it starts with a T but it's got a breathy sound behind it -- 'thalers.'"
"That's a silly name for money, Jack -- no one'll ever take you seriously, talking that way."
"Well, they shortened 'Joachimsthaler' to 'thaler,' so why not reform the word even further?"
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

Neal Stephenson's fanciful 2003 novel Quicksilver, set in 17th century Europe, mixes a good deal of fact in with the fiction. Real historical figures like Isaac Newton, Robert Hook, John Locke and Samuel Pepys come and go throughout the story, and actual events are central to the plot. And even that piece of dialogue from the middle of Stephenson's sprawling 900-page tale, the first part of a massive trilogy, explains in a nutshell how the word dollar came into the English language.

Barbara Ann Kipfer puts it this way in Word Nerd: The word, she says, "ultimately derives from the German Taler, short for Joachimstaler, a silver coin of the 16th century; the Spanish dolar, a coin also known as piece of eight or peso, derived from that and influenced Thomas Jefferson's choice of name for our monetary unit."

You may notice that while Kipfer says Taler and Joachimstaler, Stephenson puts it as thaler and Joachimsthaler. So which is it? According to Wikipedia, the proper spellings are Joachimsthaler and Thaler. It goes on to say, however, that after a 1902 German spelling reform, Thaler became Taler, but this did not affect the English spelling of Thaler. So I will award the point to the novelist.

Joachimsthal is a city in Bohemia where Thalers were first minted.

Speaking of not taking the word dollars seriously, as Stephenson's  character Eliza does in Quicksilver, I am reminded of the time I visited Delft. Inquiring about the admission price for a small museum, I mistakenly said dollars instead of euros. It seemed like an honest mistake to me, but the man behind the counter took serious offense and started ranting about American tourists. I turned around, taking my euros, purchased with dollars, with me. Euros were still fairly new in Europe at that time, and I imagine even a few of the Dutch were still having trouble with the word.

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