LINGUIST List 6.1145

Tue Aug 22 1995

Sum: Currency names

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Veturlidi Oskarsson, Currency names - summary

Message 1: Currency names - summary

Date: Tue, 22 Aug 1995 12:12:37 Currency names - summary
From: Veturlidi Oskarsson <>
Subject: Currency names - summary

Months ago I sent a question out on the Linguist List about some currency
names. I got a number of responses, but being both lazy and busy, it has
taken me much too long to send out a summary. But now, for those who have --
maybe -- been waiting for it, here it comes. I will not say anything about
the scientific value of it, but interesting is it (it might e.g. be, that
all the "r...l" words are "after F[rench] (and Sp[anish]) models and are
indeed cognate with ROYAL", and the rupee and the rubl are not related to
either the "r...l" words or each other at all). -- I have somewhat
shortened the responses, where necessary.

Veturlidi Oskarsson

- ----------------------------------------------------------
The request as it was sent on March 27, 1995:

>Does anybody know the etymology of the following currency names:

> rial (Iran, Oman, North Yemen)
> riyal (Saudi Arabia, Quatar)
> riel (Cambodia)
> real (Brazil)

>and maybe other similar names beginning with ri/re end ending with l ?

>Would it be possible that those names are of the same (ie.) origin,
>originally refering to kingdom e.t.c. (cf. regal) ?

>(What about the russian _rubel_, and the _rupee_ in India e.t.c. ?)

>It would, in fact, not have to be that strange to have a currency name
>of the same origin in countries as far away from each other as Brazil
>and Cambodia, as currency names do not seem to >follow any "national"

>Cf. the name _dollar_ (in use in almost 60 countries (comes originally
>from the german _thaler_, but has supposedly spread out under the
>influence of USD)), and the many variations of the word "crown"
>(icelandic kr/ona, danish krone, estonian kroon, czechish korun e.t.c),
>and _dinar_ in various (arabic) countries.

>Veturlidi Oskarsson
>Icelandic Language Institute Reykjavik, Iceland

1. response:

"Real" (Brazil) is certainly from Latin, meaning "the king's money". I would
bet the other r...l words are unrelated, although I can't give etymologies
for them. -- Note that "dinar" is actually of Latin origin (denarius), via

John Cowan

2. response:

Spanish and Portuguese "real" mean "royal" (the king's currency). I have no
idea whether this got picked up into Arabic and Cambodian as "riyal" etc. --
Sanskrit "rupaya" ("rupee") is different although at the moment I can't
recall what it means.

Michael A. Covington
The University of Georgia, USA

 3. response:

The Czech currency unit ("crown" in English) is called "koruna" in the
nominative singular. The form you gave, "korun", with a long /u/ is the
genetive plural form, which has a zero ending and is used with numbers over
5. Therefore you get "1 koruna", "2 koruny", but "5 korun".

The German word "Thaler" (whence "dollar") comes from an earlier word
"Joachimsthaler", which designated a coin minted from the high-quality
silver mined during the middle ages at the town of Joachimsthal ("Thal" =
valley), which now bears the Czech name Jachimov. Jachimov is in the West
Bohemian region of the Czech Republic.

James Kirchner

4. response:

The Russian word *rubl'* is not related to *real*, *rial*, etc. The word is
an old past passive participle ("l-participle") of the verb *rubit'* 'to
chop.' Gold ingots were originally *chopped* into small (eventually,
circular) pieces and used as coins. In Contemporary Russian, the past
passive participle of this verb is *rublennyj* (e.g., *rublennoe mjaso*
'chopped meat').

Gary H. Toops
Wichita State University

5. response:

"Real" in Portuguese/Spanish is cognate with "royal" and "regal." My hunch
is because it was currency backed by the crown, but it's a hunch. It would
be interesting to be able to do something like prove that the
Spanish/Portuguese used the term 'real,' which was picked up by the Moors
and carried with Islamic invaders into SE Asia. Also difficult.

The Russian "rubl'" is a bit more than a hunch--it derives from the word for
"cut": rubit' 'to cut', and other words. Check out Fasmer's (Vasmer's)
etymological dictionary, available in German or Russian. I was told by a
Slavic professor that this is cognate to "rupee," but the guy was going
around the bend and could easily be wrong on that point.

T. Beasley

6. response:

The RIAL words are all originally "after F[rench] (and Sp[anish]) models"
and are indeed cognate with ROYAL. In England a gold coin of this name was
issued in 1465, and there were French, Spanish and Scottish coins of the
same name over the 15 and 16C. The name seems to have travelled with the
maritime empires.

DOLLAR also has a complicated history. Starting as the English version of
THALER (a coin of the German states) it then was used for the large Spanish
coin (worth 8 reales) of Spain. Because of the importance of the Spanish
maritime influence and of its currency, the term became very widespread and
was used (even in parts of the British Empire, such as the Straits
Settlements -- we still use dollars here in Singapore) in many places,
including in the US. You cannot assume that the use of DOLLAR is a sign of
American influence.

RUPEE is different, coming from a Sanskrit word for silver, it is of Indian

Anthea Fraser
National University of Singapore

7. response:

According to Vasmer's etymological dictionary of Russian, rubl' (gen. sg.
rublj'a (stress on ending)) shares a root with the verb rubit' 'hack' and
meant 'hacked off piece of a grivna (larger unit of currency)'.


8. response:

Russian rubl' is not related to rial/real. It comes from a root meaning
'cut'. The origin of the term is from silver bars from which sections were
clipped off (otrubit' in Russian) and used as currency. I remember visiting
a church in Moscow dedicated to the 'cut-off head of John the Baptist'
(otrublennoj golove Ioanna Predtechy).

BTW kopejka (1\100 of a rubl') means 'small spear/lance' and comes from the
depiction of St. George killing the dragon which was the symbol printed on it.

The Russian word for money - 'den'gi' - is of Turkic origin and is one of
several in the Russian language coming from a Turkic root meaning 'stamp'.

Incidentally, I'm pleased to see that the Slovenian currency is the toler -
one more from dollar.

Geraint Jennings

9. response:

Panamanians use the term REAL for a 5 centavo piece. It was interesting to
me because the currency is in balboas & centavos, but, as with American
money, this coin had its own name. As far as I know, it was the only coin
that had its own name (I lived there for 11 years). It was also a type of
test in the marketplace to determine who was "local" & who wasn't. When the
price quoted to me was "2 reales" & I pulled out the exact change, they knew
I wasn't a tourist! The word REAL means ROYAL in Spanish, but I don't know
why the 5 centavo piece would be called such.

Caroline L. Steele
University of Hawaii

10. response:

LANGUAGE, *rial*, *riyal* are from Spanish *real* (<Latin REGALEM) to which
Portuguese *real* is obviously related. I have no info on *riel*.
 The Russian *ruble* and Indian *rupee* are not related to the above nor
each other. They both come from indigenous words.

Marc Picard

11. response:

According to The Macmillan Dictionary of Measurement, the first REAL
(`royal') was a small silver coin issued by the Spanish royal mint.

RUPYA (>rupee) is an ancient Indian word for `(metal made into) coinage',
and RUBLE may be related.

DINAR comes from Latin DENARIUS, a coin worth ten ASSES (a word related to ACE)

Anton Sherwood

12. response:

... "real" was also the name of a old gold or silver coin in the kingdoms of
Castile, Portugal and Aragon (later in Spanish America). The first dated
'real' was coined in Castile in the middle of the 14th century. They were
called 'real' because they were coined by the crown, in opposition to local
coins coined by bishops, counts and noblemen. According to my sources of
information (Enciclopedia Larousse - Spanish version), there were 'reals' in
France too.

In the 14th century, the Iberian peninsula was divided in several
territories: three christian kingdoms: Castile, Aragon and Portugal, and a
lot of small moorish kingdoms (called 'taifas'). It is not unlikely, thus,
that the name for the 'real' had been taken in Arabic as 'riyal'.

One curiosity:
In contemporary Spanish, the sentence 'No tengo un real' (literally: I have
not a real) means 'I have not a dime' (the same in Catalan: no tinc un ral').

J. Carlos Ruiz
Universitat Jaume I

13. response:

In the case of Brazil's real, the currency is named after an old currency
which was always referred to in the plural as 'reis' and 'mirreis'
(thousands). 'Real' means 'royal', and so does 'reis', I suppose.

Tony Berber Sardinha
University of Liverpool

14. response:

(translated from Icelandic:)
The russian word rubl is in no way related to the "r...l" currencies. In
russian the word is _rubl'_ (' = palatalization), and comes from the verb
_rubit'_ 'chop, hew'. The explanation is, as far as I know, that the coin
was minted by punching it from a metal plate with a special puncher or
stamping iron. The "l" is not a suffix, as one could expect, but come from
*bj, *mj etc. (labial cons. + j), that changed to *bl', *ml' etc. in proto
slavic. So, it is ie. *roubh-jo-s, or something like that, that lies behind
the rubl.

I don't know about the Arabian word _ri(y)al_ (which I suspect to have a
long a:). It could very well be of semitic origin, both the number and and
type of root consonants (r-y-l), and "CV-type" (CVCVVC, cf. kita:b 'book')
could support that.

Gunnar Ol. Hansson

15. response:
Hinds and Badawi's DICT. OF EGYPTIAN ARABIC (1986) indicates that RIYAAL,
twenty piastres or a twenty-piastre piece, derives from Spanish REAL.

Kirk Belnap
Brigham Young University

16. response:

As far as I, as a layperson , know, the word "real" in Continental Spanish
was in fact in use until the begining of the 20th century (My grandmothers
used it, as well as my father, in everyday speech). I am not sure what
portion of a peseta this amount was (whether it was a portion of a cent or
viceversa, I could ask if you want to know). I suspect that, at least the
word real in Portuguese (or Brazilian) comes from the Spanish one, and as
you know, the Spanish 'real' means of course 'royal'.

Nuria Lopez Ortega
Cornell University
- ------------------------------
- ------------------------------

Thank you all.

Veturlidi Oskarsson
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