The word dollar has surprising origins in Jáchymov - a picturesque spa town in Bohemia, in the western part of the Czech Republic. But how did it come to be the name of the most recognised currency in the world?
A FRIEND of mine joked last week that he he had seen a translation on television here in Finland which referred to the US dollar as the American Euro. Although the friend is an American, he is hardly the type to get hoity-toity over the incorrect interpretation of the sacred US dollar.
But just how American is the dollar? Various 'dollars' are used by countries all around the world. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Namibia and Belize are just some of the countries that use a dollar currency – even Spain used a Spanish dollar for several centuries. Indeed, many of these dollars actually predate the foundation of the United States of America.
The story of the dollar takes us back to the tiny town of Jáchymov in the Czech Republic during the early part of the 16th century. Jáchymov, or Joachimsthal as it was then known, was part of the Holy Roman Empire and 500 hundred years ago it was the centre of a thriving mining industry. Joachimsthal means Joachim’s Valley from the German tal or valley – it's the same root as the Swedish surname Dahl or the old English word for a valley dale – and the silver coins minted there where known as Joachimsthalers, later shortened to thaler.
The thaler became the currency of choice across most of Europe, for its quality and consistency. Soon there were Prussian Reichsthalers, Dutch daalders and, in Scandinavia, various dalers , being used as an early precursor the Euro. When Spain – then ruled by the central European Habsbergs – reformed their currency in 1492, the famous silver 'piece of eight' – much beloved by pirates – was referred to as the Spanish dollar to keep up with the German cousins.
European settlement (or invasion) of the Americas began in earnest in the in the 17th century. The English settled the area still known as New England and for a time New York was actually known as New Amsterdam, as it was a Dutch colony. Elsewhere, in what was one day to become the United States of America, there was a strong Spanish influence, and large number of Germans and Swedes arrived, with other European nationalities. Coincidentally, many of these settlers were familiar with an identically weighted silver coin - the thaler - which had been used back home by merchants for hundreds of years.
The American War of Independence (1775-83) left a rather anti-British sentiment throughout the fledgling nation, and when the United States Mint was founded in 1792 they produced silver coins called dollars, rather than the pound sterling, as had happened in other British colonies. And so the dollar was born.
But what of the iconic $ sign – the most recognised currency symbol in the world? Surely this very symbol of the United States is as American as baseball and apple pie? Well, kind of. The most plausible explanation for the $ symbol is that in the early Spanish colony in America, the peso was abbreviated to ps, and the two letters over time came to be written on top of each other, slowing becoming $.
So both the symbol and name for dollar came via Spanish roots, with a good mix of Dutch and German influence, and a distant Czech ancestor. No wonder it might be seen – in a light-hearted way – as the 'American Euro'.
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