Archive for ‘A Word’

October 30, 2012

A Word: Why Do We Call Dollars ‘Dollars’?

Ah, the ubiquitous crumpled dollar—that small greenish rectangle of linen that purchases our chewing gum, under-tips the wait staff at restaurants, and refuses to be inserted into vending machines. But where does that word dollar actually come from?

Dollar, just like Dvorák, RENT, Pilsener, a lengthy pseudo-operatic rock song from the 1970s, and Ántonia Shimerda, comes to us from Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. In 1516, the town of Jáchymov, situated near the German border and called by the nearby Germans Joachimsthal (literally “Joachim’s valley”), a new silver mine opened. Three years later, Count Hieronymus Schlick, a nobleman wishing to extend his coolness even beyond being a Bohemian count named Hieronymous Schlick, decided to start minting his own money from the silver mined in Joachimsthal, and called his large coins Joachimsthalers. (Note that in German, ‘th’ is pronounced as a hard ‘t,’ and that the ‘a’ in Joachimsthalers is pronounced like ‘a’ in English ‘what.’) As this coin gained use throughout Bohemia and Germany, burghers chose to shorten this unwieldy name to just thaler, which became the currency in many German states until German unification under Otto von Bismarck, when the mark gained precedence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century the thaler spread from High and Low German to Dutch, the language of the great sea-traders who spread their dalars all over the world, and from thence finally to England, where it was Anglicized into daler, daller, and finally dollar. Moral of the story: next time you go to buy a bag of Cheetos from the vending machine in the laundry room, thank Count Schlick for not naming his coins Hieronyms or Schlicks.