Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Apple #373: Dollar Signs

A while ago, faithful Daily Apple reader Dan wanted me to find out about dollar signs. Here's what he asked:

where did the symbol for the dollar come from? I was looking at some web site yesterday and they showed the prices in pounds, euros, dollars, etc., and it occurred to me that somebody had to invent the "$". Who, (we know about when) and why the "$"?

I'm not as up on my history of currency as Dan is, so I'm not one of those "we" who knows when the $ sign was invented. So I'll look up both when and by whom.

[looks stuff up online]

Dollar sign by Andy Warhol
(You can get a poster of this from All

Okay, Dan, the answer to the by whom part is one of those vague things like, "People just started doing it this way." Given the time period, "people" probably means white men who were educated and were writing letters and printing things in newspapers. That's about as specific as I can get about the who.

As for the how, this is one of those situations where nobody knows for sure how it came to be the way it is today. There are lots of theories, most of which have been debunked by this point. Rather than muddy the waters and tell the same untrue stories over again (including the one that is in Atlas Shrugged), I'll tell you the story that most people currently think is correct.

  • The evolution of the dollar symbol took place in the late 1790s, just after that there Revolution when the Colonists separated themselves from the British. You might think that the British pound would be the primary currency, but actually, the primary coin in use at the time was the Spanish peso.
  • The Colonists-now-Americans decided they were going to subdivide the British pound into 100 cents as a way to distinguish themselves from ye olde Britain. Cent is a Latin-derived word meaning "hundred," so that's where that word comes from, by the way.
  • At about the same time, in 1797, the US ran into a shortage of both gold and silver, which tightened up their ability to mint US coins. So the US government said, there's a lot of Spanish currency still floating around here, let's make Spanish money legal currency again for a while. (Spanish dollars remained legal currency in the US until 1857, after the Gold Rush.) Anyway, that tells you how pervasive Spanish money was at the time.

Peso, or pesata, used in Spain in 1809. It's hard to see but at the top of the coin on the left, Peso is abbreviated Ps. You can see a larger version here.
(Photo from FAO Coins. These are for sale, so this image might not be around long.)

  • The way people abbreviated "pesos" was to write a P (some say upper case, some say lower case) with a little s sort of superscripted next to it. Like, Ps except with the s smaller and up high.
  • As time went on, people -- there are those mysterious "people" -- began smashing the two letters together, and then they stopped making the loop on the P, only making the downstroke.

How some helpful soul via Wikimedia represents this transformation.

  • That seems like a lot of steps to get to the final transformation. But as the wise folks at the Oxford Dictionaries point out, putting a slash through a letter was a common way to indicate that the abbreviation you're using represents currency. So maybe the $ sign was sort of a mash-up of the Ps abbreviation as well as the habit of making a single slash to denote currency. This last bit is my own supposition.
  • How the single downstroke became a double downstroke, I'm not sure. People (there they are again) started adding the second line in the 1800s. But there are still a lot of dollar signs out there with a single downstroke. Like this one. $

The Pound, The Yen, and The Euro

Coloring the £ with the British flag is optional.
(Image from Welker's Wikinomics)

  • The origin of the £ sign, which represents the British pound, is similar to that of the $ sign. The L is a calligraphic L with a slash through it to indicate it's an abbreviation representing currency.
  • The L stands for the Latin word libra, which was a unit of weight back in the days of Rome.
  • The weight came to mean currency because a pound's worth of British silver coins used to equal a troy pound's worth of mass. This was a way to say, these coins are unadulterated silver through and through, and they're worth this much.

(Image from, which makes pins and buttons with your favorite currency symbol)

  • The Japanese yen, which is a Y with one or two slashes across it (¥), was established by the Meiji Government in 1871. The yen was part of a new monetary system designed to be similar to European systems of currency. The origin of the symbol now seems pretty obvious: upper case Y to indicate "Yen" and draw a line through it to mark that it's an abbreviation for currency.

How to construct the €, by the European Commission Economic and Financial Affairs bureau.

  • How the euro symbol (€) came about is a more modern tale. Basically, it was the brainchild of a commission meeting in 1996. It was a ring shape with two lines drawn through it.
  • The problem was, it was more of a logo than a letter. It was supposed to represent the Greek epsilon, "thus pointing to the cradle of European civilization and the first letter of the word 'Europe.'" But this explanation is probably a load of, um, bunk, because it was promulgated after lots of people complained that the € symbol was actually really hard to reproduce.
  • In order to use the symbol, publishers and typesetters had to design the symbol from scratch for each font they had. And they found it harder than you might expect. It was too fat, too round, took up too much space, etc. So they were yelling to the EU about it a lot. At the same time, they had to come up with something, so they were changing the shape of the symbol to make it work in their fonts.
  • Now, in 2009, a scant 13 years after the Euro was established, the shape of its symbol has changed. It's no longer the nice round, reminiscent-of-a-circle-and-harmony shape, but it's more elongated. The "people" have altered the currency's symbol.

What the Euro logo looked like originally, and what most typeset symbols tend to look like now.
(Image from Font Shop)

For how to type all these currency symbols on either a Mac or a PC, check out this page at

Roy Davies, The Word "Dollar" and the Dollar Sign $, last updated September 4, 2008
The Straight Dope, What does the S in the dollar sign represent? October 23, 1992
Mark Brader, Origin of the Dollar Sign, Alt Usage
Ask, What is the origin of the dollar sign ($)? and Does the '¢' in the US cent sign stand for 'cent'? and What is the origin of the pound sign (£)?
All Experts, Pound (currency) and Troy weight, pound
GoCurrency, What is the British pound (GBP)?
ADVFN USA, The history of the Yen
European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs, How to use the euro name and symbol
J├╝rgen Siebert, The Euro: From Logo to Letter


  1. This is fascinating! Thanks, again, for all of your wonderful research.

  2. Pam, I appreciate your enthusiasm. I'm choosing to ignore the fact that it is consistently coupled with an advertisement. Glad you're enjoying the Apples.


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