Social currency: 6 lesser-known currency origins
In ages past, if a skilled worker was worth his salt he was sure to be rewarded with an allowance to buy just that: salt. These days, our sterling efforts are rewarded with a bit more than such a modest allowance – a salary no less. But our modern-day payslips are not so far removed from this ancient exchange as we might think: the word salary is derived from the Latin word ‘salarium’; a Roman soldier’s allowance to buy salt.
Before the twentieth century, salt was universally a prized commodity. In Ethiopia, for example, salt blocks called amole tchew were used as trade currency – before the Ethiopian Birr was introduced.
The linguistic origins of the world’s major currencies are linked either to units of measure or a regal reference. Prominent examples being Great Britain’s Pound, derived from ‘pondo’ – the Latin word for ‘weight’ – and Sweden’s Krona, from the Latin ‘corona’ for ‘crown’.
By contrast, there are currencies whose linguistic origins have no links to weights or measures. In fact, they appear to have rejected them entirely in favour of references to their host nation’s socio-cultural history.
So what about those currencies which never feature on the stock exchange yet have a rich linguistic history? There are a few.
Bulgaria has the lion’s share
The word Lev means ‘lion’ in archaic Bulgarian. The Lev was introduced as Bulgaria’s currency in the late nineteenth century, after the country gained independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Every day’s a new dawn in Zambia
The government of Zambia introduced a new currency, the Kwacha, following independence from Britain in 1964. Kwacha means ‘dawn’ in Bemba – one of the official languages spoken in Zambia. So in context, Kwacha was a ‘new dawn of freedom’, capturing the nation’s patriotic zeitgeist in its new currency.
Seeds of courage in Tonga
Tonga’s currency, the Paʻanga, has its origins in a bean-like vine producing large pods with large reddish brown seeds. Seeds of the Pa’anga are roundish, up to five centimetres in diameter and one or two centimetres thick, like coins. When strung together they are used as anklets, worn while performing a traditional Tongan war dance – the Kailao.
No mountain high enough in Lesotho
Lesotho’s currency, the Loti, means mountain in Sesotho, one of Lesotho’s official languages. The currency is named after the country’s celebrated Maloti mountain range; Maloti being the plural of Loti.
Blessings of a rainy day in Botswana
Botswana‘s currency is the Pula. Pula means ‘rain’ or ‘blessing’ in Setswana – one of Botswana’s official languages. The country is home to the Kalahari Desert so when on the rare occasion it rains there, it is considered precious. The scarcity of rain in Botswana, makes it valuable – hence the aptly named Pula currency.
Guatemala’s symbol of liberty
Guatemala‘s currency is the Quetzal. It is named after Guatemala’s national bird, the quetzal. The quetzal’s resplendent feathers were highly prized by the Maya people for their rarity; hence Guatemala’s currency – the Quetzal.
Worth its weight in gold
In business, currency is effectively the language of trade. However, currency perhaps also represents a means of preserving and showcasing a part of a nation’s cultural and social history.
And while some may view this as worth its weight in gold, for others, it is priceless.