A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Where did the word "dollar" come from?

October 23, 1992

Dear Cecil:

Where did the word dollar come from, anyway?

Cecil replies:

Finally, a colorful word-origin story that turns out to be true. In 1516 a local potentate opened a silver mine and later a mint at a locale in Bohemia called Joachimsthal (literally, "dale of Joachim"). The mint began churning out coins known as Joachimsthalers, soon shortened to thalers and called dalers by the Dutch. The English corrupted this to dollar and apparently began applying the word to any large silver foreign coin. In North America, for instance, English settlers referred to the Spanish piece of eight, then in wide circulation, as the Spanish dollar.

For several years after independence Americans used whatever oddball coinage they could get their hands on, Spanish dollars included. But by and by they began thinking it was time to establish their own currency. Thomas Jefferson strongly opposed using the English system and urged that the basic monetary unit be called the dollar, a term people were already familiar with. The Continental Congress said what the hell and declared the dollar the U.S. monetary unit in 1785, although no U.S. dollars were actually minted until 1794. By 1837 Washington Irving was making snide references to "the almighty dollar," and we've been slaves to the buck ever since.

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