India has a new symbol for the rupee. Where do other currency symbols, like the dollar sign, come from?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 15 2010 6:33 PM

$ £ ¥ €

Where do currency symbols come from?

Click to view a slide show.

The Indian government approved a symbol for the rupee on Thursday after holding a nationwide design contest. It's a fusion of the Latin letter "R" with the ancient Devanagari Ra. The intuitiveness of this design got the Explainer wondering about the dollar sign—there's no "S" in dollar. How did the $ originate?

We got the $ from the Spanish. In the late 18th century, merchants in the North American British colonies traded mainly with two currencies: the British pound and the Spanish dollar. When the United States adopted its own currencyin 1785, it used Spanish money as its model—a deliberate "screw you" to the British. Scholars have since theorized that the $ sign evolved out of an abbreviation for peso: The plural for pesos was "ps," which eventually became "ps," and then simply an "S" with a single stroke denoting the "p." One early instance of the $ symbol crops up in a letter written by the merchant Oliver Pollock in 1778. Pollock also uses the "ps" abbreviation, making the letter a bridge between the two. The double-line through the S variation is less easily explained. Some believe they represent the twin pillars of Gibraltar depicted on the Spanish coat of arms. Others say it's shorthand for the letter "U" superimposed over the letter "S"—for U.S.

Advertisement

Other monetary symbols have more obvious origins. The sign for the British pound, £, evolved from the Latin word libra, meaning scales, since the British pound was originally worth exactly one pound of pure silver. The Chinese yuán and the Japanese yen—both of which mean "round object" in their respective languages—use the symbol ¥, based on the letter Y as transliterated by international traders. As for the euro: After soliciting designs from about 30 teams of artists, the European Commission polled 2,000 members of the public on a shortlist of 10 finalists and ultimately selected the €. (A German named Arthur Eisenmenger then claimedhe had designed the symbol decades earlier.)

Many countries don't bother to create their own symbols, relying on simple abbreviations instead, like zł for the Polish złoty, or DM for the former German Deutsche Mark. Others combine a letter abbreviation with the dollar sign, such as the Nicaraguan córdoba (C$). The symbol for the Israeli "new shekel," ₪, joins the first Hebrew letters of each word into one unit. It's common for currency symbols to change over time. The Russian ruble, for example, was originally represented with the Cyrillic letter " Р" written horizontally over a vertical " У." That later become a simple "R" or " руб."

Rupee symbol.

  While each country has its own way of representing its currency, there is also a standard international system known as the ISO 4217, established in 1978 by the International Organization for Standardization. These codes are used for banking and business transactions around the world and look a lot like stock ticker symbols: JPY for Japanese yen, RUB for Russian rubles, and INR for Indian rupees. Even more abstract is each currency's numeric code, which usually matches its country code as established by the ISO. The numeric code for the Saudi riyal, for example, is 682.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Robert Hoge of the American Numismatic Society.

Like  Slate and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.