Why Does '$' Mean 'Dollar,' Anyway? : Planet Money The rupee has a nice, logical new symbol. So what are the roots of our own currency symbol?
NPR logo Why Does '$' Mean 'Dollar,' Anyway?

Why Does '$' Mean 'Dollar,' Anyway?

Man and his symbols. STRDEL/AFP hide caption

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That happy guy up there is D. Udaya Kumar. He just won the Indian government's contest to design a symbol for the rupee. (Until now, it's been abbreviated as "Rs.")

His design follows the modern standard of basically taking the first letter of the currency's name, and drawing a line through it (think ¥ and €). It has the added benefit of looking not only like "R" but also like "ra," from the Devanagari alphabet used in Hindi, according to the Times of India.

We're delighted for Kumar, a young industrial design PhD who seems like a nice guy.

But his victory raises a question: What's the logic behind the symbol for our dollar?

The short answer: It's not entirely clear. Here's the long answer, courtesy of the U.S. Treasury department:

The origin of the "$" sign has been variously accounted for, however, the most widely accepted explanation is that the symbol is the result of evolution, independently in different places, of the Mexican or Spanish "P's" for pesos, or piastres, or pieces of eight. The theory, derived from a study of old manuscripts, is that the "S" gradually came to be written over the "P," developing a close equivalent of the "$" mark. It was widely used before the adoption of the United States dollar in 1785.

Redesign the dollar: Got a better idea for what the dollar symbol should be? Send your designs to us at planetmoney@npr.org. We'll post our favorites on the blog.

Update: Thanks to the reader who pointed out that Slate posted a story asking the same question (and beat us to it). The story includes some interesting details. For example:

"The sign for the British pound, £, evolved from the Latin word libra, meaning scales, since the British pound was originally worth exactly one pound of pure silver."