What I Learned About the Etymology of the Dollar

I’ve been reading a fascinating analysis in Joseph Campbell’s Creative Mythology that juxtaposes Christian and Gnostic interpretations of the snake. I always love the striking images Campbell uses to illustrate his points. So far the art in Creative Mythology has been the usual: pottery, bowls, and statuettes. But this cool coin came up in the images Campbell used to illustrate snake iconography.

“The Serpent Lifted Up” depicts a serpent wound around a cross. The symbol was stamped onto a 16th century, German coin. This isn’t any random German coin, it has a very specific name: the thaler.

Although I was supposed to be focusing on snakes and mythology, the etymology geek in me went wild when I saw the word thaler. Thaler sounds an awful lot like dollar, doesn’t it?

A little digging in Merriam Webster proved my instinct was correct. The thaler was an early currency minted in Bohemia. The thaler (written thaler in German and tolar in Czech) debuted as joachimstaler, which translates to the Valley of Joachim, where silver for the thaler was mined.

With its fairly standard weight and value the thaler became important to international trade throughout Europe. In 1566 the Holy Roman Empire established the Reichstaller as its coin of account. Around the same time in the English speaking world, the thaler became known as the daler. Daler referred to European coins of many types. It’s not hard to see the leap from the English daler to the U.S. dollar.

Back in Germany the thaler went on to dwindle to a less practical, though more artistic life. Huge coins, sometimes made from gold, were prized collectors items. Many of these works of art survive to this day, including the fascinating “Serpent Lifted Up” golden thaler.

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