Why Does the U.S. Dollar $ign Look the Way it Does?

You know what the U.S. dollar sign looks like, but do you know why? Explore the history behind some of the world’s currency symbols.

There are some symbols that are universal. You see them, and you know exactly what they are or what they mean in any context.

Case in point: the U.S. dollar sign. It can refer to an amount of money or it can relate to an emotion, like greed or longing. Think of a cartoon character with dollar signs in his eyes. You just know his focus.

But how did we arrive at that particular symbol for our currency? And is symbolism attached to other monetary signs around the world?

Today, we look at some of the better known currency signs.

The U.S. Dollar Sign $

How much truth is there in the story that the $ has its roots from the abbreviation of “U” and “S” (as in United States), with the U on top of the S?

Nada.

We got the $ from the Spanish. The Spanish started to mint a silver coin called peso de ocho, or pieces of eight. Peso for short. As the silver supply in Europe dried up, the peso became the main currency for global trade. It replaced the previous currency of choice — the joachimsthaler — or thaler, which was pronounced like dollar.

So the word peso became synonymous with dollar.

But why the symbol?

Merchants were hard working and industrious. But they did want to make their lives a little easier when they recorded transactions. So they came up with a “P” with a superscript “S” — the plural of pesos. It looked like this: PS.

Over time, the two overlapped and became today’s dollar sign. These first appeared in record documents around 1770 or so. That means American colonists were the first to use the symbol.

Now, there are some who write the symbol with two vertical lines through the “S.” Some folks speculate this refers to the twin pillars of Gibraltar you see in the Spanish coat of arms. Others think it might be the letter “U” still superimposed over the “S.”

Let Us Not Overlook the Lonely Cent ₵

While we’re at it, let’s not forget the $’s sibling, the cent sign.

The word derives from the Latin word “centum,” meaning hundred. The symbol ¢ is shorthand for $0.01 or one hundredth of a dollar.

But why this symbol? Some think that it goes back to Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century who proposed a decimal system for the new country’s currency. But the consensus is that it first came into use in the early 19th century — it was common to place a line through a letter as a way of indicating that it was a currency symbol. So the lower case “c” for cents became “¢.”

What about other currency symbols?

The British Pound £

Yes, Great Britain is part of the European Union — at least for now — and the EU uses the euro (more on that currency later). But the British Pound is still with us.

Many link both the symbol and name “pound” to the term libra, the Latin for scales or balances.

There are several origin stories about the "pound sterling," but one most experts agree on is the connection to weight and silver. The original British Pound equaled one pound of pure silver.

Now About that Euro €

When the European Union was created, the European Commission solicited designs from about 30 teams of artists. It then polled 2,000 members of the public on a shortlist of 10 finalists and ultimately selected the €.

According to the European Commission in 1996: “Inspiration for the … symbol itself came from the Greek epsilon — a reference to the cradle of European civilization — and the first letter of the word Europe, crossed by two parallel lines to ‘certify’ the stability of the euro.”

The Japanese Yen and Chinese Yuan ¥

The yen was adopted as Japan's official currency in May 1871. Like others, the roots of this currency lie in silver. The yen was originally designed to weigh about 24.26 grams of pure silver, or 1.5 grams of pure gold. Currently, yen coins are made of aluminum.

The word yen is actually pronounced as "en" in Japanese. Yen translates to "round object," describing the shape of coins used by other countries. Why the “Y”? The yen symbol may have been adopted due to all the foreigners who pronounce the word en with a "y" preceding it.

The Chinese yuan also means "round object" and uses the same symbol.

Used for at least 2000 years, the yuan or renminbi is probably the first decimal currency system. It’s also considered the first to use metal coins and bank notes

The Russian Ruble ₽

The actual ruble goes back to the pre-Revolution Russian Empire and remained after the creation of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the name was changed from the Soviet Ruble to the Russian Ruble.

The original symbol used between the 16th century and the 18th century was the Russian letters "P" (rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise) and "Y" (written on top of it).

In 2007, the Central Bank of Russia tested 13 possible symbols. A "P" with a horizontal stroke below the top was proposed. Supporters say that it is simple, recognizable and similar to other currency signs. The symbol became the official symbol in 2013.

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