Shilling

Is this a word that is falling out of favour in the modern world? Perhaps so, as our money changes and the word becomes less useful and relevant to our lives. Whatever its fate in contemporary language, in historical reference it will continue to be meaningful, and of course, it is to history that we shall look now.

So, where does shilling come from? The short answer is that we can’t be certain. But there are various theories to be examined. Our first step is to go back to Old English,where we find scilling, sometimes also written as scylling. Here is an example from the Anglo Saxon version of Genesis, dating from the first half of the ninth century:

Þúsend scyllinga on seolfre

(a thousand shillings of silver)

There are cognates for this word in a number of other Germanic languages, such as Dutch schelling, German Schilling, Icelandic skildingur, Swedish and Danish skilling, and from these we go to Proto-Germanic and the root *skillingaz or *skellingaz. So far, so simple. But it is at this point that the origins become hard to trace.

The first theory is that it comes from a Proto-Indo-European source: *(s)kel-, a root meaning “divide, cut up”, with the idea being that metal was cut up or divided into amounts.

Another theory proposes another Proto-Indo-European root: *skell, with the meaning “ring, resound”, presumably in reference to the sound made when metal coins are struck. Personally I am not convinced by this theory, although I rather like the idea of ancient people talking about the ringers in their pouches!

Thirdly, the Latin word siliqua has been suggested as the origin. This is from siliqua graeca, the seed of the carob tree, but the term was also used in a weight system, and from there, it is proposed, comes shilling, as metals were weighed for value.

The last theory we shall look at is that it is in fact of Semitic origin. In this theory, the word derives from shekel, from the Hebrew sheqel or shaqal, an important piece of silver coinage for the ancient Hebrews. Interestingly, the root also means “weighed”. Opponents of this theory object that at the time of Proto-Germanic the people would have had no knowledge of the Hebrews, and would not have known Biblical Hebrew references containing this word. However, even if they did not derive it from religious texts, there is no reason why the speakers of Proto-Germanic would not have come into contact with speakers of another, similar Semitic language, of a well-known race of traders, and it could derive from a similar root in Phoenician.

Ultimately, we cannot be sure of the origin, and so we shall leave this humble word with an aura of mystique, and four interesting possibilities.

4 thoughts on “Shilling

  1. I was born in 1972 so I’m a child of decimalisation when the UK cast off the shekels (see what I did there!) of the old pounds, shillings and pence monetary system in 1971. Although the shilling ceased to be legal tender by the time I was growing up I still do vaguely remember the shilling as it continued in circulation after 1971 because it was the same size as the new decimalised 5p coin and was used as such.

    The suggested theories over the etymology of shilling are interesting and if I had to choose one it would probably be the first theory you mentioned being from the Proto-Indo-European root: *(s)kel- “divide, cut up” with the evidence of current Germanic language words namely: Norwegian: ‘skillemynt’ German: ‘Scheidemünze’ Swedish: ‘skiljemynt’ and Danish: ‘skillemønt’ meaning a generic term for coins of low value equivalent to English “small or loose change”. All the words have the sense of “split+money” comparable to the formation of Greek κέρμα, κερματος, (τό κείρω – to cut into bits), small pieces of money, small coin, change; generally and collectively, τό κέρμα ‘money’.

    Although it does sound the most fanciful of all the theories I do like the ‘shekel’ Semetic loanword theory which would connect ‘shilling’ with Greek σίγλος (or σίκλος) and push shilling’s origins all the way back to the dawn of civilisation to Akkadian: šiqlu.

    • I agree on that point – it does seem the most fanciful! Somewhat romantic, wishful thinking. I also prefer the first theory – it seems the most logical. But on the other hand, language is not always logical, so you never know!

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