Dr. Sol Taylor

Money Terms and Origins

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, August 23, 2008

any of our monetary terms are derived from some previous or historical origins. Take the one-cent coin, for example. When first minted in 1793, it was about the size of the English penny of the time. Thus, it was commonly called a "penny." This term has stuck to this day, even though our one-cent coin went small in 1856 and the English penny remained much larger until the 1950s.
    The English abbreviation for penny is "d." It stands for "denarius," which goes back to Roman days when the smallest denomination of the time was a silver denarius. The earliest English coinage was designated "d" and eventually (around the 16th century) became commonly known as the "penny."
    The Lincoln cents issued from 1909-1958 are also known as "wheaties" or "wheat back cents."
    The term "two bits" comes from the practice of cutting up Spanish eight reales (silver dollar-sized coins) into pie-shaped fractions of eight per coin. Each piece was "one bit" or one-eighth of a dollar. Thus two bits became one quarter of a dollar or, in modern terms, 25 cents.
    The term "clad coinage" refers to the sandwich (not alloy) composition of our dimes, quarters, and half dollars issued after 1964.
    To deter clipping (shaving off the edges of silver and gold coins), a common practice before our first coinage, reeding was added to the coin when minted. The term may have originated from the appearance of reeds growing in nature.
    The term "E Pluribus Unum" which appears on all our coinage means "one out of many" — referring to the union of the former English colonies into a single nation. The motto "In God We Trust" was added to our coinage in 1864 at first to refer to our belief in a higher being. It appears on all of our current coinage and currency.
    The term "Liberty" appears on all of our coinage except the new presidential dollars, which instead depict the Statue of Liberty. "Liberty" is the first motto to appear on our coinage. It states the importance of freedom — partially taken from the French Revolution slogan of 1792 which expressed the terms "Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality." The female figure of Liberty has appeared on most of our coinage from the beginning in 1792 to the last issue of the Walking Liberty half dollar of 1947.
    The only coin to show the term "Peace" was the silver dollar issued from 1921-1935. It is known as the "Peace dollar."
    Before the United States made its own coinage starting in 1792, the most common coinage in the colonies was the coinage of Spanish American colonies such as Mexico, Peru, and Chile. These large silver coins were known as "ocho reales" (eight reals). The symbol on the back of each coin was a pair of columns with a draped banner in the shape of an "S." This symbol eventually was used in ledgers as the symbol we know as the dollar sign ($). These large silver coins also were known as "daalers," "thalers" and similar variations from the European dollar-sized coins of Germany (thaler), the Netherlands (daaler), and other variations.
    To many recently immigrated U.S. colonists, the reference to the dollar was based on their European coinage experience. In addition, many of these coins actually circulated in the colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries.
    The dime was originally spelled "disme" — only on our 1792 dime and half-dime denominations. It is a variation of the French word for one-tenth and was pronounced as "deem." From 1793 onward it has been known as a dime without the "s."
    The nickel five-cent coin originated as a replacement for the silver half dime which was rapidly disappearing from circulation due to its tiny size; it was easily misplaced. It first appeared in 1866 and circulated along with the silver half dime until 1873 when the silver five-cent coin was discontinued. The new coin was of a novel copper nickel alloy and simply referred to as a "nickel."
    The "V" nickels of 1883-1913 had a Roman numeral five (V) on the back. Thus they were commonly known as "V" nickels. The V was thought by some as standing for "victory." It did not.
    Our first gold coins were named by Alexander Hamilton as the "eagle" ($10), half eagle ($5) and quarter eagle ($2.50). The $20 gold coin denomination (double eagle) did not appear until 1849 and circulated up to 1933.
    Our paper money has had a variety of nicknames. The most common one for our early Federal Banks notes was "greenbacks," which is pretty obvious; the backs were printed in green ink. Other paper money terms — often local jargon include: sawbucks, dixies, shinplasters, bucks, deuces, C-notes, brown backs, short snorters, technicolor notes, horse blankets, and no doubt several others.