The Fascinating Stories Behind 5 of the World’s Most Important Currency Symbols
Every day you may see a dollar sign or a euro, yen or rupee symbol, depending on where you live. But where do these symbols come from? Some have evolved organically over centuries while others are the result of design competition or government decision. Here are the intriguing origin stories behind five of the world‘s most popular currency symbols.
What does the dollar sign have to do with “Pirates of the Caribbean”? Not much, apart from the phrase “pieces of eight”, the favorite currency of pirates. The dollar has its origins in the Spanish peso, which Spain adopted in the 15th century.
Formally known as peso d’ocho, or piece of eight, it began to circulate around the globe via the distant colonies of Spain. After the formation of the United States, they modeled their new currency on the peso.
In 1785, the United States officially adopted the dollar sign for its currency. Although no one knows its precise origins, the most prominent theory says that it originated from the written abbreviation of the peso, which was ps. Experts theorize that someone started combining the two letters, placing the S above the P, eventually dropping the curved part of the P. The resulting symbol – $ – first appeared after 1800.
But there are actually three iterations of the dollar sign – $, an S with a vertical line through it, and an S with of them vertical lines cross it. While the previous theory covers the first two symbols, it does not explain the third version. Writer Ayn Rand postulated that this double-lined version represented the United States (and a symbol of freedom), with an S placed above a U; over time, people have omitted the lower part of the U. However, no documented evidence exists for this, and the double lines may simply be a way to make the currency sign stand out from the surrounding letters or numbers. Double lines are common in many currency symbols.
The dollar is currently used by more than 20 countries, including Canada, Namibia and New Zealand. One or more letters are usually added in front of the dollar sign to let people know what currency it refers to. For example, the Canadian dollar is designated CA$ or C$, the US dollar is US$ and so on.
Do you remember the French franc, the German mark and the Italian lira? They are now a thing of the past, thanks to the euro. In 1992, 12 European countries joined together to form the European Union (EU), which was officially created the following year. The EU’s aim was to strengthen cooperation in areas such as citizenship rights and foreign policy and to create a single currency.
Within the next few years, the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU) decided that its new monetary unit would be called the euro, after Europe. The symbol € is derived from the Greek letter epsilon, or Є, which is an E in English and is the first letter of the word “Europe”. The two parallel lines represent stability. The real designer of the euro symbol has never been revealed by the European Commission.
The euro was launched in 2002 with seven notes and eight coins. While banknotes are identical in all member countries, coins have a common design on one side and a country-specific design on the other. The symbol is often placed after the number, such as $100, and commas are used (not decimal points) to express fractions. For example: €100.50.
Although the UK was a founding member of the European Union, and remained so until its famous Brexit split in 2020, it never adopted the euro as its currency. Instead, it kept its pound sterling, considered the oldest living currency in the world.
Although no one knows for sure where the term “pound sterling” comes from, most currency experts agree that it has a connection with weight and money. The pound comes from delivered, the Latin word for weight and 1 British pound was equivalent to 1 pound of silver, a huge sum in the 8th century. The symbol for the pound sterling, £, is derived from the L in the word libra, which in Latin means libra or scales. The pound was in circulation long before England’s King Athelstan adopted it as the country’s first currency in 928. The first pound coin was minted in 1489 when Henry VII was on the throne and dubbed sovereign. In 1717, the United Kingdom began valuing the pound in gold rather than sterling silver.
In 2021, the British pound was ranked the fifth strongest currency in the world and the fourth most traded currency. No other nation uses the pound sterling. However, some countries (mainly former British colonies) have their own currency called the “pound” – for example, the Egyptian pound and the Nigerian pound, both with the same £ symbol and a country-specific designation, such as E£ or £ N The pound sterling is simply denoted by £.
The yen became the official monetary unit of Japan in an 1871 monetary reform, replacing the wide variety of paper notes that more than 200 clans had issued since the 16th century. The coin got its nickname because yen means “a round object”.
The yen symbol is a capital Y with two horizontal lines running through the stem and it is placed before the value it represents, such as ¥100. Sometimes it appears with a single horizontal line. The yen symbol is the same symbol that China uses for its renminbi currency, often referred to as the yuan, the name of its unit of denomination. (“Yuan” also means “a round object” in Chinese.) But while the Chinese pronounce their motto “yuán,” the Japanese pronounce theirs as “en.”
So why do the Japanese use a Y in their currency symbol if they pronounce it “en”? Some think it’s because foreigners tend to pronounce “en” as “yen”. The two currencies are distinguished by the following names: CN¥ for the Chinese yuan and JP¥ for the Japanese yen.
Japanese currency was in the tank after its devastating losses in World War II. But its economy then revived and the yen is now the third most traded currency after the US dollar and the euro. Most establishments in Japan only accept yen, which comes in the form of coins and banknotes.
While the Euro is one of the youngest currencies in the world, the Indian Rupee is one of the oldest, dating back to the 6th century BCE. But she only had a symbol in 2010.
The modern rupee originated in 1540, when Sultan Sher Shah Suri created a silver coin called the rupeeafter the Sanskrit word rupyakam, meaning a silver coin. The piece retained the same general appearance until the beginning of the 20th century.
For most of its years, the rupee was denoted only by the letters Rs or Re. It received its symbol in 2010, after a design competition held in India. A design professor named D. Udaya Kumar produced the winning symbol, ₹. It incorporates elements of both Devanagari (a script used to write many Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Hindi) and Roman or Latin scripts: Devanagari “Ra”, for rupee and the Roman “R” for the English word “rupee”. The parallel lines at the top of the design represent the tricolor of India and the equal symbol.
Several other countries use the name rupee or rupee for their currencies, including Indonesia, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. But they don’t use the ₹ symbol.