From wedges to windfalls: the origin of “coin”

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.

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Not an actual bitcoin. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “From wedges to windfalls: the origin of “coin””

“Redeeming” etymological features

Towering over the city, arms outstretched, is Christ the Redeemer. Built in the 1920s, this 100-foot statute of Jesus Christ is an icon of Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics Games it’s hosting. But if we were speaking the English of the Middle Ages, we’d be calling this monument by another, less pious-sounding name: Christ the Ransomer.

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Christ the Redeemer is not trying to accept your money. “Christ on Corcovado Mountain.” Image by Artyominc via Wikimedia Commons.

From money…

Latin had a verb, redimere, literally “to buy back.” The verb had a lot of purchasing power, so to speak, but one of its most basic meanings was “to buy the release of a slave from captivity.” As a verb, redimere joins red-, a combining form of re-, “back,” and emere, “to buy,” and takes a noun form of redemptio. This emere also yields many other English words, from assume, example, and exempt to premium, sample, and even vintage.

Now, redemptio underwent some changes in French, some obvious and some not-so-obvious. Through some serious smushing, redemptio became ransom. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites ransom as early as 1225, referring to “a sum of money paid for pardon from an offense.” By 1325, we see the modern sense of ransom (i.e., with respect to hostages). It’s right around this time when we also see redemption, then meaning, like its original Latin, “freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment.” Redemption, as you can tell, experienced a much less dramatic evolution in French, coming into English from the Anglo-Norman redempcioun.

By the late 1300s and early 1400s, we see ransom and ransomer emerge as Christian theological terms: “deliverance from sin and damnation by Jesus Christ.” Redeem and redemptor appear by 1438. Redeemer, which form now prevails, is attested by 1475. French may have anticipated the eventual distinction between ransom and redemption, as redempcioun was first used for Jesus Christ’s spiritual redemption.

…to metaphor

But why the monetary metaphor? In Christian belief, Jesus Christ sacrificed his life to save humanity from sin. We can understand this as a kind of transaction: He pays for humanity’s sins with his life, he releases mankind from the captivity of evil and damnation with the payment or concession of his life. They say money is the root of all evil. For Christians, money metaphors are apparently the root of all salvation, too.

Over the centuries, we stretched redeem out to its other familiar senses. By the late 1400s, redeem was signifying “to restore,” specifically “to a former, better state” by the late 1500s. The 17th century witnesses redeem “making amends.” It’s not until 1897, according to the OED, that redeem starts cashing in, say, coupons. The usage is American in origin.

Now, many economists question whether hosting the Olympic Games actually pays off. (Some might even say it’s a ransom payment for global attention.) But this summer, after political scandal, recession, and Zika, Brazil may not be looking for any monetary redemption per se. Instead, it may be looking up to its iconic Redeemer, and back to the history of the word, for a more metaphorical redemption – in the eyes of its people and in of the world. So far, it’s looking pretty auspicious for Rio 2016.

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Breaking open the “piggy bank”

The Panama Papers is a big leak pointing to some big names involved in some big money. Fortunately, at least for a little head like mine, some smart folks on the internet have been helping me understand this big news in some simpler terms: the piggy bank.

I’m not going to dive into the shell companies, tax evasion, or corruption associated with the secret offshore industry the Panama Papers is exposing, because, well, I got no further than piggy bank, thanks to the helpful explainers.

Where does this term piggy bank come from? I guess I’ll have to break it open and see what sort of etymological money is inside.

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This little piggy went to the market, I guess you could say. Image from www.freeimages.com/photo/piggy-bank-1428097.

“Piggy bank”: a lexical ledger 

A casual web search for the origins of piggy bank will yield various articles repeating a claim that piggy banks were originally made from pygg, a kind of “orange clay.” Through subsequent spelling and vowel changes in Middle English, this pygg evolved into the piggy associated with these “money boxes” today.

Hogwash. Mostly.

As far as the written record of piggy bank goes, here’s what we know. The earliest record of piggy bank is actually the American English pig bank, cited in the Jersey Journal in 1898. Etymologist Barry Popik points us to a particularly illustrative citation in a 1900 issue of The Oregonian: “The latest novelty — The Pig Bank. You have to kill the pig to get the money — 25c each.”

This early example indeed supports the classic concept of the piggy banks: They have to be broken apart to get the money slipped into its one-way slot. Aversion to, or the inconvenience of, this requisite destruction, so it goes, encouraged savings, as well as perhaps deterred theft.

Now, piggy bank as such is evidenced by 1913 in The Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette, according to the OED: “She could see everything quite plainly now; her little room with the pink roses climbing up the wall, her box of toys, — “Teddy was up-side-down, poor Teddy,” — her desk with the piggy bank on top of it.”

The OED does document another sort of pig bank in the mid 19th century, though this one appears to be unrelated. This pig bank refers to a small bank supplied with money by a larger one. (Perhaps the operant metaphor is that the small bank is fattened up like a pig?)

Rolling in the mud?

As far as the record is concerned, the term piggy bank is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the savings device is much older. Archaeologists have discovered money boxes used in ancient Rome, in medieval China, and even in 14th-century Indonesia, whose money boxes even took the form of pigs.

But why should these coin containers be associated with pigs in the first place?

We don’t have evidence of the kind of orange pygg many internet articles cite, but we do have record of pig referring to various clay vessels. In Scottish and northern dialects of English, a pig has named an earthenware crockery (e.g., pitchers, jars) since the 15th century. And piggy as an adjective and noun for “earthenware” have been found in Scots in the 20th century.

For the origin of this pig, the OED ultimately admits its ignorance, but it does make some interesting suggestions. Perhaps it is related to piggin, a “wooden pail,” though earthen or metallic in some regions. Or perhaps it is connected to prig, a “small metal pitcher.”

The OED also cites an analog in the Scottish pirlie pig, which the dictionary attests by 1799. Here, the pirlie refers to “poking” a coin out of the pig, a kind of “clay pot.”

And, as a Middle English dictionary suggests, the earliest known reference to this pig as a “pygg of wine,” was so named because the container was made from pig skin. (Despite appearances, this pygg is not the “orange clay” your cursory Google queries will yield.)

Etymology must often heed Occam’s razor. Piggy might just be a transferred sense of pig, as in, yes, the animal. Smallish, round vessels made from flesh-colored clay? Sure, they sort of look like little oinkers. (As for the actual etymology of pig, see my piece over at Oxford Dictionaries on the curiously obscure origins of some common animal names.)

Swine lines   

So, let’s size things up: We have evidence of earthenware pigs in Middle English by the 1450s, Scottish pirlie pigs by the 1800s and piggies by 1950s, and American English pig bank and piggy bank by the 1900s. Record-wise, this is a pigsty.

As Michael Quinion suggest in his thoughtful discussion, we might well turn our attention away from lexical pigs to cultural ones for the origins of piggy bank. We find money boxes in various forms throughout early Europe, including in the form of pigs. Due to the food they provide and the farrow they birth, pigs became symbols of wealth, fertility, and luck, particularly in Germanic cultures. Immigrants, apparently, must have brought Sparschwein (a “saving pig”), for instance, to United States, where speakers applied a more literal label to this hog hoarder.

For as much as piggy banks may help someone like me understand the situation, the Panama Papers is evoking a different kind of pig symbolism: the greedy, capitalist kind.

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