Coin of the Realm

d.w.rowlands [at]

A while ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the fact that even though there are around two hundred sovereign states in the world and 182 currencies (according to wikipedia) circulating as legal tender in these countries, there are not nearly that many names of circulating currencies. In fact, accounting for multiple spellings, one finds that sixty-five percent of the world's population uses just six names for their currencies: "rupee", "yen", "dollar", "real", "peso", and "franc". Of course, this is partly due to the huge populations of India and the People's Republic of China, which between them have thirty-seven percent of the world's population. However, if we limit our consideration to people who do not live in either India or China, we still find that half of them use one of seven names for their currencies: the same six plus "pound".

A map of the world, color-coded by the names of currencies used in different countries.  (Eurozone countries are shown based on their pre-Euro currencies.)
A map of the world, color-coded by the names of currencies used in different countries. (Eurozone countries are shown based on their pre-Euro currencies.)

I tracked down the fifteen most-shared root currency names (plus one naming system) in the pre-Euro world. I decided to ignore the Euro on the basis that it is recent (and current events suggest it may fail) and, more importantly, because it would hide patterns within Europe and the European roots of some worldwide names. For the record, though, 5% of the world's population lives in the Eurozone; as far as I can tell no other currencies have yet been named "euro", though.

24% -- rupee

When I started this project, I expected to find that the currency names used by the most people--and certainly the ones used by the most people outside their country of origins--would be the names of currencies of European colonial powers from the last half-millennium. However, not only do 24% of the world's population call their currency the "rupee", but 7% of the world's population both calls their currency the "rupee" and doesn't live in India. The word apparently comes from the Sanskrit word rūpyakam, meaning "silver coin" and was first used as the name of a specific currency in the 1500's. Apparently trade with Indian merchants resulted in Indian coinage becoming common enough in Indonesia that the name became established enough to be picked as the name for the currency of the Republic of Indonesia.

23% -- yen

The second most-used currency name in the world is also non-European in origin, and is the result of China's large population and historical cultural dominance in East Asia. The word yuan, meaning "round coin", comes from China, but the same character and similar words (yen, won) are used in Japan and the Koreas. While Taiwan calls their currency the "dollar", it is also commonly referred to as the yuan.

6% -- dollar

Given that I knew that a lot of countries--including British dominions like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand that I would have expected to keep the word "pound"--called their currency the "dollar", I expected the majority of the world's population that used this currency name to be outside the US. However, two-thirds of people whose currency is called the "dollar" are Americans--there are many countries, especially small island nations, that have adopted the name "dollar", but most of them have very small populations. Indirectly related is the pre-Euro currency of Slovenia, the tolar, whose name, like "dollar", is a form of the word thaler, which refers to a silver coin first minted in Bohemia in around 1518.

5% -- real
4% -- peso

Now we come to the remnants of the Iberian empires of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. In 1497, Spain reformed their currency with the basic unit being a the silver "peso" or eight-real coin, commonly known in English as the "piece of eight". The massive silver deposits of Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia allowed the Spanish to produce huge numbers of these coins, which became so common in international trade that they served as a world currency. The word "peso" as a unit of currency seems to be restricted to former Spanish colonies in Latin America and the Philippines, but the "real" apparently supplied the basis for the names of the currencies of several Middle Eastern countries, and Cambodia. I suspect that the use of "real" for the Brazilian and former Portuguese currencies is a parallel usage--most likely it was a unit of coinage throughout Iberia in the late Medieval and early Modern periods.

It is worth noting that despite the similarity of sound, the Spanish pre-Euro currency, the peseta, was not a cognate for "peso". "Peso" means "weight" or "pound" in Spanish, while "peseta" is a diminutive of the Catalan word "peça", meaning "piece" or "fraction".

4% -- franc

For some reason I had assumed that the name "franc" for French currency was adopted during the French Revolution to replace the "livre". However, the term apparently dates back to the Fourteenth Century and the inscription "Johannes Dei Gratia Francorum Rex" on one-livre coins. Beyond France, the term apparently spread to Switzerland and Belgium--both partially francophone--and France's colonies. With the exceptions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea, there are apparently only three non-European "franc" currencies--the "Central African CFA Franc", the "West African CFA Franc", and the "CFP Franc" which were created for French colonies to protect them from the French devaluation of the franc after World War II.

3% -- pound
2% -- shilling
2% -- lira

I assume that, for the most part, the countries that use "pound" or "shilling" as units of currency are doing so as a result of British imperialism. However, Lebanon and Syria--former French mandates--also call their currency the "pound". However, these two countries also use an Arabic word that appears to be cognate with the "lira" / "livre" / "libra" Romance language terms for the pound as a unit of weight, so I suspect that this may be a consequence either of a decision to translate a French-inspired currency name into English because of American and British economic dominance, or a consequence of Crusader states using Medieval European currency names. The use of the "shilling" in Austria, I assume, is simply evidence of this unit of currency being common in Medieval transalpine Europe.

2% -- ruble

The "ruble" is a currency term that originated in Russia, and seems to have essentially stayed there--the only other country that uses it is the Russian client state of Belarus. I had actually expected a decent number of CIS countries to still call their currencies the "ruble", but apparently no one but the Belarusians wants to be reminded of their Soviet past in that way.

2% -- denarius

Another particularly surprising thing is that the "denarius", originally a Roman coin, survives in the names of a number of Arab currencies. I suppose this makes sense, since Arabs were historically nomads who probably did not mint their own coins, and so when they did start minting coins they would likely have named them after coins common in the region. Its use in parts of the former Yugoslavia seems like it might come from a tendency to want to recognize the Byzantines and avoid using names of the Ottoman coins that would have been used there more recently.

1% -- mark

The German "mark" seems not to have caught on outside of Europe, probably because Germany never had many overseas colonies and lost those it had after World War I. However, it seems to have shown up in Finland in 1860, even though Finnish isn't a Germanic, or even Indo-European, language. Maybe they picked it to piss off the Russians?

0.9% -- Latin American heroes

While it shouldn't really count for this list, since it isn't a single name but rather a naming pattern, I wanted to point out that nearly one percent of the world's population uses currencies that fit into the Latin American (and particularly Central American) tradition of naming currencies after national heroes. Bolivia and Venezuela both have currencies named after the South American revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar: the boliviano and the bolivar. Similarly, Honduras's lempira is named after the leader of native resistance against the conquistadors. Meanwhile, the Panamanian balboa, Nicaraguan cordoba, and Costa Rican colon are named after Spanish explorers: Vasco Balboa, Francisco Cordoba, and Christopher Columbus.

0.7% -- drachma

Like the denarius, the Greek drachma seems to have given its name to the currencies of a few Middle Eastern and Southeast European countries.

0.5% -- crown

Other than the former Czechoslovakia, where it may have independently arisen, the use of variants on "crown" as currency names seems to follow Norse colonialism in the early Medieval period. (The British also had a coin called the "crown".)

0.5% -- lion

I'm not sure if it really deserved to be included, but I found it interesting that Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova all have currencies with names that mean "lion". The Romanian and Moldovan ones are in fact short for "lion thaler", which was the name of a Dutch version of the thaler.