Thursday, January 24, 2013

Where does the $ sign originate?

The short answer to this question is that nobody knows. There is a good summary and links here on Roy Davies' (son of Glyn) website (scroll down to the heading "The Dollar Sign $ - Theories of its Origins").

However, one idea that Roy doesn't consider is that the origin of the dollar sign comes from the Christiann monogram which combines the three letters IHS In Hoc Signo; a Latin phrase meaning 'By this sign'. It was stamped on things like communion wafers and conveys the idea that the power of God its 'transferred' or 'accessible' through the item bearing the monogram. In other words, officially stamping IHS on something made it sacred.

This idea about the origin of the $ sign comes from Marc Shell. I've been dipping into his wonderful & beautiful Art and Money. Here are a couple of images he uses to illustrate the idea.

Firstly you can see in this carving of a chalice the letter IHS appear at the centre of the sun-like motif appearing from the cup (Shell describes it as irradiating water). Notice also the sheaves of wheat around the chalice. Desmonde makes great play of these in Magic, Myth and Money as a symbol of fertility. Shell's chapter on the Holy Grail in Money, Language and Thought tells us just how significant the idea of the grail is. It represents boundlessness. We don't know that the Grail was a chalice, but of course that's how most of us think about it. The key thing in its representation is that it's ever-giving. An infinite source for all things (which incidentally is how us Pirsigians describe Value)


And then this showing the three letters intertwining to form a monogram which something which looks very like a $ sign.


None of this proves anything, of course. But it does make you wonder. 

And finally... I have some vague memory of this art installation being in the news. Although maybe I'm inventing it, I'm not sure. The piece was by Cildo Meireles and is called How to build Cathedrals. Up top are two thousand bones, down below are six hundred thousand coins, and connecting them is a vertical column of eight hundred Eucharist wafers (not sure if they're stamped IHS !)


This image is from Cave to Canvas where you can read more about the artwork.

I think artists are much closer to understanding money than economists.



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