Thursday, July 14, 2005

Etymology for fun and profit

I got to wondering why the currency of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, &c. was a "pound sterling".

The answer is debatable, but there are (apparently) three main theories. What's not under debate is that originally it was "a pound of sterlings", and a "sterling" was the coin.

i) It's from "easterling money", since that's where the Northmen came from. (Yes, the Northmen came to these isles from the east.) This theory comes via Holinshed, so possibly should be taken with several pinches of salt.

The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.44 (web1913)
Sterling \Ster"ling\, n. [OE. sterlynge, starling, for easterling, LL. esterlingus, probably from Easterling, once the popular name of German trades in England, whose money was of the purest quality: cf. MHG. sterlink a certain coin. Cf. {East}. ``Certain merchants of Norwaie, Denmarke, and of others those parties, called Ostomanni, or (as in our vulgar language we tearme them), easterlings, because they lie east in respect of us.'' --Holinshed. ``In the time of . . . King Richard the First, monie coined in the east parts of Germanie began to be of especiall request in England for the puritie thereof, and was called Easterling monie, as all inhabitants of those parts were called Easterlings, and shortly after some of that countrie, skillful in mint matters and allaies, were sent for into this realme to bring the coine to perfection; which since that time was called of them sterling, for Easterling.'' --Camden. ``Four thousand pound of sterlings.'' --R. of Gloucester.] 1. Any English coin of standard value; coined money. [1913 Webster]

ii) It's a derivation of "stater". Personally, I find this one too implausible to consider for long.

iii) It's because some of the early Norman pennies had a little star on them.

Personally, I prefer an interpretation none of the sources I've seen have given, which is simply that the tiny, shiny silver things looked like little stars. Given the society of the day, what else would most people have had to compare coins, especially silver ones, to?

Besides, it's a lovely, poetic explanation, and therefore possesses the other kind of truth.