Why Is A Dollar Called A “Buck”? And Where Does the Word “Dollar” Come From?

Jerry Anderson December 12, 2015 Comments Off on Why Is A Dollar Called A “Buck”? And Where Does the Word “Dollar” Come From?
In frontier areas, both before and after the Revolution, money was in short supply. In fact, it was such an uncommon thing in the everyday lives of people that they relied upon bartering as a means of exchange. One of the most valuable commodities traded on the frontier were deerskins, or “buckskins.” They could be used to make shirts, trousers, moccasins, hats, etc…and, furthermore, they could be readily used as a means of exchange in order to purchase items one needed for one’s family. These buckskins were in such demand that people would value various commodities in terms of how many “buckskins” they were worth. For example, someone might say, “How many buckskins is that tool/gun/item worth?”

As time went on the word buckskin was shortened to “buck” or
“bucks” (by the 1780s). This practice of valuing things in relation to buckskins became widespread and habitual. On the Pennsylvania frontier an individual’s or family’s wealth was often measured in how many “buckskins” they were worth. The worth of a day’s labor was stated in terms of the number of “buckskins” it deserved in compensation, even though the individual might be paid in barter with another commodity entirely.

How many “buckskins” is this worth?
That is why, later, when money became more readily available on the frontier, the basic unit of the U.S. currency, the dollar, started to be referred to as a “buck.” The term had been in use for so long that people carried it over in relation to the dollars that started to appear as a medium of exchange. And we use the term to this day, unaware of its origin.

Early silver dollar, 1804
Why is U.S. currency measured in term of “dollars”? The origin of the term is from the area of Europe known to us now as The Czech Republic. In 1519 a silver mine near the town of Joachimstal (“tal” is German for “valley”, the town having been founded in a place known as “Joachim’s Valley”) started minting a silver coin called a “Joachimstaler.” The coin became very popular and was circulated widely. It became known by its shortened name, the “taler.” (long “a” sound)

Joachimstal, The Czech Republic.
The Dutch and Germans both used this coin and in translating and using the name, softened the both the initial consonant sound (“t”), changing it to a “d”, and changing the sound of the “a” to a short “a.” Thus, the “taler” became the “daler.” The English adopted this form but, adapting it to their own language, changed its spelling to the modern form, the “dollar.” English colonists informally used the term “dollar” to refer to Spanish Pieces of Eight.

Spanish “Pieces of Eight” which were commonly cut into pieces by colonial Americans and early U.S. citizens to make payment or give change.
In 1785, when the Continental Congress established a standard unit of U.S. currency they chose the term “dollar” because it was widely known and was not associated with any form of English currency. An important factor for a nation trying to establish its own identity. However, it was not until 1797 that the U.S. Congress “officially” became the first nation to adopt a national currency named the “dollar.”

Replica of the original 1797 U.S. “Dollar.”

AFTERTHOUGHT: HOW PEOPLE HAVEN’T CHANGED

In the American colonies there was no standard currency… coins from many different nations were used as a medium of exchange – gold and silver by any other name was just as valuable! The coin that was in widest use was the Spanish Peso, also known as “Pieces of Eight” (see above illustration) because it could be divided into eight pie-like pieces. Scamartists abounded. Some would shave a small piece of gold or silver off of the coins passing through their hands. After collecting enough shavings, they would have them melted down and sell the gold and/or silver for a nifty profit.

The grooved, thicker edges of a U.S. coin.
That is why today, if you examine the edge of a U.S. coin, you will notice that there is a thicker ridge around the circumference of the coin, along with grooves along the outside edge. The thicker edge was designed this way to discourage con-men from shaving off slivers of the “real” gold and silver coins of our nation’s past. Today, of course, our coins are not made of gold and silver and no one seems inclined to shave off an edge of a 50 cent piece. But the design of the coin remains the same.

Our society values money, coins, bills,…we live in a culture of consumption and desire for material things. That reminds me of a way to appropriately close this post/story on an interesting musical note.. Here it is, and please note the “borrowing” of elements from two films: “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” (Marilyn Monroe) and “The Cotton Club” (Richard Gere).

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