Thursday, 12 February 2015

Dollars and pieces of eight

Why Is The Dollar Sign A Letter S?

Ever wondered why we use the dollar in New Zealand, instead of the pound, and where the name and the “dollar” symbol come from? Read on, and be ready the next time that question comes at you in the pub.

The name comes from one part of the world, Czechoslovakia, and the symbol from another, Spain and the New World – and our adoption of both in New Zealand was the decision in the end of one Robert David Muldoon, who drove NZ’s changeover from pound to dollar.

We could have had a crown, a double crown, a doubloon, a fern, a royal, a tūī, a zeal or even a zealer or a ‘Muldoon’– or even a decimal pound – but the decision was made to copy Australia, the US, and adopt the name that began as the thaler.

Its story begins in 1500s Bohemia, a central European kingdom spanning most of today's Czech Republic.
    Central Europe had just become rich with silver. After centuries of sending its silver (and gold) abroad in trade for consumable luxuries like silk and spices (very little of which ever found its way back),
new sources of silver ore were discovered in Saxony, German Tyrol and Bohemia. With far more silver than still-scarce gold, Tyrol began replacing its teeny-tiny gold coins with big heavy silver coins of equal value. The newly-minted guldengroschen coin, 32g of nearly-pure silver, was an instant hit.
    Fast forward to 1519. The Kingdom of Bohemia's Joachimsthal region was finally producing enough silver to begin minting a heavy silver coin of its own. This new Bohemian joachimsthaler coin improved on the guldengroschen, adjusting the weight and purity slightly to make the coin evenly divisible into existing European weights and measures. It rapidly became the new European favorite, and soon most anyone with silver was minting their own version. The -thalersuffix came to refer to any and all of these similar heavy silver coins . . . and over the next few decades
the thaler coins came to have several transliterated variations on their names: the Slovenian taler, Dutch daalder, and in English, the word thaler became dollar.

So, where does the ‘striped-S’ come from? Oddly enough, it comes from what was once the coin of international trade: the Spanish peso, or “piece of eight.”

Central Europe may have been flush with silver by earlier standards, but by the 1530s the mines were already slowing down . . . and all their riches would be utterly eclipsed by what Spain had just found in the New World. Between melting down the silver of conquered civilizations and heavy mining for more, for the next three hundred years 85% of the world's silver production would come from Spanish-controlled Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico.
    While other nations had been sporadically reducing the silver content of their once-nearly-purethaler/daalder/dollar coins, Spain suddenly had more silver than any other nation on earth, and therefore no reason to ever debase their country's coinage. And the seemingly unending flow of silver meant they could mint a lot of those coins, too.
    Blessed with both quantity and stability, the Spanish real de a ocho coin (commonly known as apeso de ocho or"piece of eight") gradually supplanted all competing thalers as the coin of international trade. Before long, the "Spanish dollar" was being used everywhere from the West Indies to the Far East…
    So influential was the silver "piece of eight" that 32% of the world's population live in countries with currencies named for, or originally patterned after, that single Spanish coin, including the modern U.S. dollar.

But that still doesn’t explain the dollar symbol, does it.

Turns out, like many modern symbols, that came from the “tediousness of our handwriting.” Clerks bored with writing out the same word multiple times per day eventually morphed the word into something sexier.

Why Is The Dollar Sign A Letter S?

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