In one of my recent Weekly Word Watches for the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I highlighted bitcoin, the cryptocurrency whose valuation continues to skyrocket.
As I explain in the article, the bit in bitcoin – a coinage attributed to its mysterious creator(s) Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 – was shortened from binary digit in 1948. Binary digits are those 1’s and 0’s that make our computers work.
And thanks to the success of bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies have also branded themselves as coins, such as Dogecoin and Peercoin, suggesting -coin is becoming a productive combining signifying a digital currency.
But what of the word coin itself? Its origins transports us back to some of the earliest days of writing.
The first evidence the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds for coin comes in 1350, when it referred to the cornerstone of a building. Now, we call this a quoin, a variant form that emerged in the 1600s alongside coign, preserved in Shakespeare’s coign of vantage, or a “favorable position”—like a corner, were you can pivot right or left.
The modern monetary coin was already following close behind. By 1362, the OED finds coin for “the device [design] stamped on money,” extending to a “piece of money,” originally gold or silver, by the 1380s.
The verbal coin, “to make money by stamping metal,” is found even earlier than the noun, with the OED dating it to as early as 1330. The verb’s core concept of “making” led to “devise, invent,” thus to coin words. Here, the OED cites English writer George Puttenham’s 1589 The Art of English Poesie:
The common fault of young schollers not halfe well studied before they come from the Vniuersitie or schooles, and when they come to their friends, or happen to get some benefice or other promotion in their countreys, will seeme to coigne fine wordes out of the Latin, and to vse new fangled speaches, thereby to shew thenselues among the ignorant the better learned.
Kids these days.
English borrowed coin from French, where the word meant “corner” or “wedge,” as it does today. We can also find the “stamping” sense of coin in Old French, so we know it’s not original to English.
Its French parent explains coin’s old “cornerstone” sense, but how do we account for “money”? Coins were originally made with dies—tools for cutting and moulding metal—which at one time took the form of wedges. And so we have a textbook example of semantic shift: Through close association, coin transferred from implement to artifact, from maker to made.
The French coin, though, is ultimately minted from the Latin cuneus, “wedge.” The deeper roots of cuneus are unclear, with potential ties to the Latin acutus (“sharp,” source of acute and its truncated cute) and the Greek konos, which gives us cone.
Besides coin, the Latin cuneus also lives on in cuneiform, which simply meant “wedge-shaped” in the late 17th-century before naming in the 1810s the wedge-shaped writing rendered onto clay tablets in ancient Sumer and other early civilizations.
Incredible, isn’t? The word coin takes us from the birth of writing to the brave—and apparently very valuable—new world of cryptocurrency.