Language of coinage: A guide to monetary terms
Paisa: From the Sanskrit padāṁśa, meaning “quarter part”. The Portuguese pesa from which we get peso and peseta, are also derived from paisa, as is paiksan, the colloquial term for money in Burma.
Rupee: From the Sanskrit rupyakam, meaning “silver coin”. It was formally used to denote a specific coin from 1540 to 1545, when the Afghan Sher Shah Suri took over Delhi and issued the rupiya. India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar and Afghanistan all use the term “rupee” for their currency.
Nisar: The Hindi phrase “jaan nisar karna” which means to shower someone with the energy of life or sacrifice one’s life, comes from money too. The 17th-century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan issued nisars, special silver coins that were presented to favoured members of his court. These were commemorative medallions that could be used as currency.
Fiat: From the Latin fiat, which means “let it be done”. In modern times, it’s used to refer to a decree. Fiat money, then, refers to a currency whose value is determined by the stability of the nation and its economy — and not on the basis of reserves of a commodity such as gold. All modern money is fiat.
Sicca: Old folks often refer to a large or high-value coin as a sikka. The term comes from sicca, a new rupee coin introduced in 1773 by the British East India Company after they took over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It remained in use until at least 1935. Siccas were also term used for the coins of the princely state of Hyderabad. Paper money, when Hyderabad first issued it in 1918, was called the Osmania Sicca, even though it wasn’t a coin.
Anna: In use in India and Pakistan until national currencies were decimalised in 1957 and 1961 respectively. An anna was 1/16th of a rupee. Four annas made 25 paise. Eight annas made 50 paise. And when someone swore their story was “sola-anna sachh”, they meant it was the whole truth.
Ratti: The weights Indian jewellers use to measure tiny pendants and chain links get their name from the oldest measurement system on the Indian subcontinent. Rattis were in use during Harappan times, their weights setting the standards for the earliest coins in the region.
Taka: The currency of Bangladesh takes its name either from the Sanskrit tanka or the Turkic tamgha; both mean to stamp or seal. Currencies called taka, tanka, tanga, tangka, tenge and tenga all derive their name from this source. In northern India, Kushan-era coins issued between the 1st and 7th centuries CE bear the words Nana Tanka in Brahmi script. By 1329, Delhi Sultanate ruler Muhammad bin Tughlaq was issuing tankas, token copper and brass coins that could be exchanged for fixed amounts of gold and silver. Today, several regional languages in India use takka to refer to a share of something or a percentage. Hence, “Kitney takkey miley?” is a popular query when school exam results are declared.
Mohur: A gold mohur was the highest unit of currency in the mid-1500s. It was adopted by the British East India Company as the most valuable coin in its currency system. Today, the term is colloquially used to refer to an official seal.
Dam: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Rhett Butler’s last words to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind may well have been about money. Low-value copper coins called dam were introduced by Sher Shah Suri. In England, it inspired the phrase “twopenny dam”, to indicate that someone didn’t care at all. Today, when we ask “Kya daam hai?” for the price of an item, we’re referring to the dam too.
Cash: To which cash are you referring? The term has three unrelated histories. The Western use of “cash” for paper money comes from the Latin capsa, which means box, and was adopted by Europe to mean money box. But in East Asia, cash was a type of coin, in use as early as the 4th century BCE. It was a circular coin with a square hole in the middle, so users could string or stack them more easily. Some also believe that cash was derived from the Portuguese caxia, which they borrowed from the Tamil kasu, a monetary unit related to the gold-weight unit karsa. The karsa, however, has no relation to the Persian qarz, from which we get the Hindi term karz, meaning debt.