Where Did the Dollar Sign '$' Come From?

Chris Beam seeks answers to an important question:

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 currency in 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.

The British pound symbol - £ - comes from the Latin word libra, meaning scales. Originally, one pound was worth exactly one pound of silver, and scales were necessary for exact exchanges. The Chinese yuan uses ¥, which is apparently a messily transliterated "y." Some sad countries like Germany and Poland don't have currency symbols.

Read the whole story at Slate.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this flip-book tour of the Big Apple.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this flip-book tour of the Big Apple.

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

Video

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

Video

Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Business

Just In