Jachymov, Czech Republic
Few of our etymological destinations will have had quite as great an impact on the modern world as the tiny Bohemian spa town of Jachymov, located high in the Ore mountains that straddle the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. It has given us one of the world’s most familiar words. If you’ve never heard of Jachymov – or Joachimsthal, as it was known until the late 1800s – you won’t be alone. Arguably very few people besides its three thousand residents will have done.
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Despite being relatively little known, Jachymov has a number of potential claims to fame, among them the fact that it was in radioactive minerals mined in Jachymov that the Polish chemist Marie Curie discovered the element radium in 1898. Jachymov ultimately became the world’s foremost producer of radium in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That distinction came at a price: mining is a dangerous profession at the best of times, but if you’re excavating radioactive pitchblende in vast quantities, at a time long before the causes and after-effects of radiation are known, things can turn even nastier. For that reason, even as late as the 1940s the life expectancy in Jachymov was just forty-two years, but happily there’s a lot more in the hills and mountains around Jachymov than potentially lethal radioactivity.
In the early sixteenth century, silver was discovered in the northwest of what was at the time Bohemia. The town of Joachimsthal was founded in 1516 to support the ever expanding silver mine that sprang up nearby and was to make the local landowners, the Counts von Schlick, one of Bohemia’s richest families.
The silver mined in Joachimsthal was of exceptional quality, and in 1525 the Schlicks began to use it to mint their own high-value coins known as guldengroschens, or guldiners. The Schlicks’ guldiners were embossed on the one side with the traditional heraldic image of a Bohemian lion, and on the other with an image of St Joachim, father of the Virgin Mary and namesake of the valley, or thal, in which Joachimsthal stood.
The Schlicks’ coins soon caught on, and before long several of the other mining towns in the area had started to mint their own versions and designs. But it was the original that endured: although of varying size and value, all the coins now being made from silver in the area around Joachimsthal came to bear the town’s name, and were soon being circulated all across Europe under the name joachimsthaler.
The problem with the word joachimsthaler is that it’s something of a mouthful. And if there’s one thing language users don’t like, it’s words that have arguably just a few too many syllables. While the joachimsthaler coins caught on, the word itself did not. Instead it was simplified, so that by the mid sixteenth century these coins had become known merely as thalers.
Before long, these thalers were being traded and spent everywhere from the Netherlands (where they were known as daalders) to Yugoslavia (tolar) and Scandinavia (daler). In English, the word thaler fell into use in the mid 1500s, where it soon adopted the more anglicised spelling by which it would eventually become world-famous. By as early as 1603, the thaler had become the dollar.
By the turn of the sixteenth century dollar had become a byword for any coin of similar value, appearance or size to the original Bohemian thaler – chief among which was the Spanish peso (the original ‘piece of eight’), which was widely circulated in Britain’s burgeoning North American colonies. As these colonies grew in size and prosperity, these ‘Spanish dollars’, as they were known, became the go-to currency for trade in North America. Although other currencies with similar names were in use in colonial America (including the Dutch leeuwendaalder, or ‘lion dollar’), when it came to establishing a new decimal coinage system for the newly independent United States of America in the early 1780s, it was the Spanish dollar that provided the template:
We cannot use the British pound I therefore propose that the unit of currency of these United States be, across the nation, called the dollar. The unit or [Spanish] dollar is a known coin, and the most familiar of all to the mind of the people. It is already adopted from south to north.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit, and of a Coinage for the United States (1784)
It wasn’t just the United States, of course: from Canada and Australia to Liberia and the Turks and Caicos Islands, a unit of currency known as the dollar is today used in more than fifty countries and territories worldwide. That alone makes its derivation from a tiny Czech mining town all the more extraordinary.
Derived from the German for ‘golden groat’, the guldengroschen was so called because, despite being made of silver, it was intended to have the same value as a goldgulden, an earlier denomination of gold coin used in the Holy Roman Empire.
Ironically neither Thomas Jefferson nor Alexander Hamilton was particularly enamoured of the word dollar, and in outlining the laws of the United States used both it and the word unit effectively as placeholders, to be replaced with a more permanent term in the future. As professor of anthropology Jack Weatherford wrote in his History of Money (1997), the pair ‘never suggested an alternative. They wrote the laws to refer to the currency as the dollar, or unit, apparently with the idea that they would think of a better name later.’
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