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Spoiler: it’s not short for U.S.

Meghan Overdeep
October 3, 2018

It’s usually pretty easy to figure out where our most common symbols come from. Take the trademark symbols, for example: ® means registered; © means copyright; and ™ means trademark. Fahrenheit (F) and cents (c) are equally intuitive.

Then how did we begin using an uppercase S with one or two lines through it ($) to represent U.S. dollars?  

In one popular origin story, the dollar sign started as a U on top of an S, as shorthand for “United States.” Over time, the bottom of the U disappeared, leaving the S with two lines through it. Later it was simplified to only one line. Makes sense, right?

The real story, however, is a bit more complicated, and it begins in Europe.

According to Reader’s Digest, the tale begins in the sixteenth century, when Spanish explorers found massive quantities of silver in their newly-conquered South American lands—lands that would later become Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. Swimming in silver, Spain went to town minting silver coins known as “pieces of eight,” or peso de ocho— “pesos” for short. The silver supply in Europe was dwindling at this time, allowing the Spanish peso to replace the German joachimsthaler (the root of the word “dollar”) as the primary coin for international trade. And so the “Spanish dollar” was born.

Rather than write out the whole word, merchants began using a P with a superscript S (ps) as an abbreviation for “pesos.” Over time that morphed into an overlapping P and S, which eventually became an S with only the stem of the P: An S with a line through it.

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English American colonists where the first to use the symbol, which began showing up in documents around 1770—six years before the birth of the United States.

Now, almost 250 years later, the good old $ sign is nearly as iconic as the American flag… and you can take that to the bank!