In 1516 a silver mine opened near the town of Sankt Joachimstal in Bohemia. The coin minted from that silver was called a Joachimstaler, which was soon shortened to taler. Taler became thaler, then daler, pronounced like dollar, which is how the word came to be spelled when it migrated into English.
According to Etymonline, American colonists started referring to the Spanish peso as the Spanish dollar due to its similar size and weight to the thaler. Thanks to the West Indian trade and the presence of Spanish colonies on the Gulf Coast, the Spanish dollar was quite a common coin in the American colonies; it ultimately gave its name to the US currency.
As Long John Silver’s parrot knew, the Spanish dollar was sometimes called a “piece of eight.” It was made up of eight smaller units called reales and could be physically cut into eight “bits” to make change. This is why a quarter is sometimes called “two bits.” A bit was an eighth of a dollar, so two bits would be a quarter of a dollar. Hence the old cheer,
Two bits, four bits,
Six bits, a dollar.
All for [insert name of our team]
Stand up and holler.
At Chester School, my father’s alma mater, they added a second stanza:
Two bits, four bits,
Six bits, a dollar.
All for [insert name of opposing team]
Lay down and waller.
All this reminds me: old timers where I grew up sometimes referred to a quarter-dollar coin as a “case-quarter.” Two dimes and a nickel could be a quarter, or five nickels, or twenty-five pennies, but twenty-five cents in the form of a single coin was a case quarter. I don’t know if this was regional, or just old-fashioned. I’d be interested to hear what you can tell me about the term case-quarter. Have you ever heard anyone use it? Do you use it? Send me a note.
Ok, that was quite the rabbit trail. I got started down the path of the dollar because I was looking up words that derive from place names (the way dollar derives from Joachimstaler). Here are a few of the interesting ones I tracked down…
The word denim comes from the French phrase serge de Nîmes—that is, serge from the city of Nîmes. Around the time of the California Gold Rush, Americans started using the word denim to refer not to a serge, but to the coarse cloth that Levi Strauss made into blue jeans. The word jeans, by the way, also derives from a place name. The French referred to a type of twilled cotton cloth from Genoa as jean fustian (the Old French name for Genoa was Jannes).
Since this past weekend saw the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby, perhaps I should mention the origin of the word derby. It derives ultimately from the county of Derby in England, by way of the 12th Earl of Derby, who hosted the first Derby Horse Race (in Epsom, Surrey, not Derby) in 1780. Within a hundred years or so, the word derby was being applied to many big horse races and to a kind of hat one might wear to such a race. Ultimately the meaning expanded to include roller derbies, demolition derbies, home run derbies, and pinewood derbies.
The word bungalow derives from the Gujarati word bangalo, which comes from the Hindi word bangla, referring to a low thatched house one might see in Bengal. It literally means “in the Bengalese style.”
The word coach, as in the horse-drawn vehicle, traces back (via French via German via Hungarian) to the Hungarian village of Kosc, where the vehicles were first made. The use of the word coach to refer to a person originated at Oxford University in the 1830s. Private tutors were slangily referred to as coaches because they carried students through, much as a horse-drawn vehicle might. The idea of coaching quickly expanded into other fields of endeavor.
The word laconic derives from the Greek region Laconia, where Sparta lay. Unlike the Athenians, who had a reputation for flowing eloquence, the Spartans had a reputation for talking like Clint Eastwood: very few words, but a great deal of meaning in each word. When Xerxes I of Persia demanded before the Battle of Thermopylae that the hugely outnumbered Spartans surrender their weapons, King Leonidas of Sparta reputedly answered with just two words: molon labe (“come and take them”). Etymonline reports an even more laconic moment: when Philip of Macedon was out conquering he said, “If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground.” The Spartans gave him a one-word response: “If.”
We also have a good many words in English that derive from the names of imaginary or literary places. Utopia—a place where everything is perfect—comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, about an fictional island with a perfect society in which people live in perfect harmony. Part of the joke was that Utopia literally means “no-place”—Greek ou (not) + topos (place).
Speaking of perfect places, I was surprised to learn that Shangri-La doesn’t derive from an old legend of the East, but from a novel and movie from the 1930s, James Hilton’s Lost Horizons.
The word serendipity, on the other hand, does derive from an old legend of the East. Horace Walpole coined the word in a 1754 letter to a friend, recalling a Persian fairy tale:
This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you…. I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip”: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of … now do you understand Serendipity?
Serendip (or Serendib) was also an old name for Sri Lanka.
And finally, a shout-out to my old friend John Milton, coiner of the word pandemonium. In Paradise Lost, the main hall of Hell, where all the demons gathered, was called Pandemonium—Greek pan (all) + daimonion (demon or spiritual power). The word soon expanded to refer to any scene of chaos and uproar similar to the chaos and uproar of Milton’s Hell.