Every day, you may see a dollar sign or a euro, yen or rupee symbol, depending on where you live. But where did those symbols from? Some evolved organically over centuries while others were the result of a design competition or a government decision. Here are the intriguing origin stories behind five of the world's most popular currency symbols.
What does the dollar sign have to do with "Pirates of the Caribbean"? Not much, apart from the phrase "pieces of eight," a pirate's favorite currency. The dollar traces its origins to the Spanish peso, which Spain adopted in the 15th century.
Formally known as the peso de ocho, or piece of eight, it began circulating around the globe via Spain's far-flung colonies. After the United States was formed, it modeled its new currency after the peso.
In 1785, the U.S. officially adopted the dollar sign for its currency. While no one knows its precise origins, the most prominent theory says that it morphed out of the written abbreviation for peso, which was ps. Experts theorize someone began combining the two letters, placing the S on top of the P, eventually dropping the curved portion of the P. The resulting symbol — $ — first appeared in print after 1800.
But there are actually three iterations of the dollar sign — $, an S with one vertical line through it and an S with two vertical lines through it. While the previous theory covers the first two symbols, it doesn't explain the third version. Writer Ayn Rand posited this double-stroke version stood for the United States (and a symbol of freedom), with an S placed on top of a U; over time, people omitted the bottom portion of the U. No documented evidence exists for this, however, and the double lines may just be a way of making the currency sign stand out from the surrounding letters or numbers. Double lines are common in many currency symbols.
The dollar is currently used by more than 20 countries, including Canada, Namibia and New Zealand. A letter or letters is usually added in front of the dollar sign to let people know which currency it refers to. For instance, the Canadian dollar is designated CA$ or C$, the U.S. dollar is US$ and so on.
Remember the French franc, German mark and Italian lira? They're all history now, thanks to the euro. In 1992, 12 European countries joined together to form the European Union (EU), which was officially established the following year. The purpose of the EU was to enhance cooperation in areas such as citizenship rights and foreign policy and to create a single currency.
Over the next few years, the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU) decided that its new monetary unit would be called the euro, after Europe. The € symbol was derived from the Greek letter epsilon, or Є, which is an E in English and is the first letter in the word "Europe." The two parallel lines represent stability. The actual designer of the euro symbol has never been revealed by the European Commission.
The euro was launched in 2002 with seven banknotes and eight coins. While the banknotes are identical in all member countries, the coins have a common design on one side and a country-specific design on the other. The symbol is often placed after the number, such as 100€, and commas are used (not decimal points) to express fractions. For example: 100,50€.
The Pound Sterling
Although the United Kingdom was a founding member of the European Union, and remained so until its famous 2020 Brexit split, it never adopted the euro as its currency. Instead, it kept its pound sterling, considered the oldest living currency in the world.
While no one knows for certain how the term "pound sterling" originated, most currency experts agree it has some connection to weight and silver. The pound came from poundus, the Latin word for weight and 1 British pound was equal to 1 pound of silver, a huge sum in the eighth century. The pound symbol, £, was derived from the L in the word libra, which is Latin for scales or balances. The pound was in circulation well before England's King Athelstan adopted it as the nation's first currency in 928 C.E. The first pound coin was minted in 1489 when Henry VII was on the throne and was dubbed a sovereign. In 1717, the U.K. began to value the pound in gold rather than sterling silver.
In 2021, the pound sterling was ranked the fifth-strongest currency in the world and the fourth most-traded currency. No other nation uses the pound sterling. However, some countries (mostly former British colonies) have their own currency referred to as the "pound" — e.g., the Egyptian pound and the Nigerian pound, both with the same £ symbol and a country-specific designation, like E£ or £N. The pound sterling is just designated by £.
The yen became Japan's official monetary unit during an 1871 monetary reform, replacing the wide variety of paper notes that well over 200 clans had been issuing since the 16th century. The coin received its moniker because yen means "a round object."
The yen symbol is a capital Y with two horizontal lines running through the stem and it's placed before the value it represents, such as ¥100. Sometimes it appears with just one horizontal line. The yen symbol is the same symbol China uses for its renminbi currency, which is often referred to as the yuan, the name of its denomination unit. ("Yuan" also means "a round object" in Chinese.) But while the Chinese pronounce their currency "yuán," the Japanese pronounce theirs as "en."
So why do the Japanese use a Y as part of their currency's symbol if they pronounce it "en"? Some theorize that it's because foreigners tend to pronounce "en" as "yen." The two currencies are distinguished by the following designations: CN¥ for Chinese yuan and JP¥ for Japanese yen.
Japan's currency was in the tank after its devastating losses during World War II. But its economy subsequently revived, and today the yen is the third most-traded currency after the U.S. dollar and the euro. Most establishments in Japan will only accept yen, which comes in both coins and bank notes.
While the euro is one of the youngest currencies in the world, the Indian rupee is one of the oldest, as it can be traced back to the sixth century B.C.E. But it did not have a symbol until 2010.
The modern rupee came into existence in 1540, when sultan Sher Shah Suri created a silver coin named the rupiya, after the Sanskrit word rupyakam, which means a silver coin. The coin kept the same general look until the early 20th century.
For most of its years, the rupee was denoted only by the letters Rs or Re. It received its symbol in 2010, after a design contest was held in India. A professor of design named D. Udaya Kumar produced the winning symbol, ₹. It incorporates elements from both Devanagari (a script used to write many Indian languages like Sanskrit and Hindi) and Roman or Latin scripts: the Devanagari "Ra," for rupiah and the Roman "R," for the English word "rupee." The parallel lines at the top of the design represent India's tricolor flag and the equal symbol.