For a Few Thalers More…

I almost never carry cash anymore and I’m not alone. A 2014 survey found that 2 in 5 Americans have less than $20 on them on a regular basis while 9% carry none at all. Over the next few decades banknotes will become extinct and we’ll pay for goods and services with a thumbprint, retinal scan, or by farting into a plastic tube (fingers crossed).

That day has not yet arrived though. The dollar bill is one of the most recognized objects in this country and all over the world. Want a snack from a roadside vendor in rural Ghana? Show him a dollar bill and chances are his face will light up like a Christmas tree. The plain ol’ greenback is a potent symbol but where did we get the word “dollar”?

joachimsthaler
Joachimsthaler, 1525

In the early 1500’s a rich vein of silver was discovered in St. Joachim’s Valley in the Kingdom of Bohemia (today the Czech Republic). Local authorities minted coins from the silver, calling them joachimsthalers, thal (pronounced like “tall”) being the German word for valley. The first skeleton of a Neanderthal was found in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf in the 19th century.

Over time the name shrank to thalers (literally “from the valley”) and entered into other European languages. A popular Dutch coin, the leeuwendaler or “lion dollar”, became well known and much-used in the American colonies and after independence “dollar” was chosen as the name for our currency.

A hundred years from now “singles”, “C-notes”, and “sawbucks” will be museum pieces but no matter how we pay for that cup of soylent green, it will still be in dollars.

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