Mo Money, Mo Problems… by William Shakespeare

In her inaugural blog for Copylab, Marisa Campbell discusses the etymological origins of the dollar and its extensive association with culture, from Shakespeare to hip hop.

The poetic arts have had a strained relationship with dollars since long before the USD became the default reserve currency of the developed world. As students of British literature and lovers of drama may recall, players in Shakespeare’s The Tempest lamented the downside of the dollar almost 200 years before the word was widely used, or likely even used at all. The Tempest debuted in 1611. The first British settlers arrived in North America only four years earlier, and certainly weren’t prioritising printing cash over planting corn. In fact, the US used a mishmash of monies (including the peso, the pound, pretty shells and beaver skins) and didn’t declare an official currency until a decade after independence. Still, somehow Shakespeare penned the following when America was but a twinkle in Britain’s eye:

GONZALO: WHEN EVERY GRIEF IS ENTERTAIN’D THAT’S OFFER’D, COMES TO TH’ ENTERTAINER –
SEBASTIAN: A DOLLAR.
GONZALO: DOLOUR COMES TO HIM, INDEED: YOU HAVE SPOKEN TRUER THAN YOU PURPOS’D.

Etymologists believe the word dollar is an anglicised – and shortened – version of the Bohemian Joachimsthaler, a coin with a name so intriguing it was butchered by several different cultures. There’s also evidence of a Scottish thistle dollar being used during the time of the American colonies, but it’s doubtful anyone tweeted the terminology to Philadelphia.

mo-money-mo-problems
[Courtesy of memebase.com]

Yet apparently people in the English-speaking world were already aware of the enduring idea that the dollar can have as much impact on your soul as it has on your portfolio. Shakespeare noted the hitches of riches, and seems to have been prescient about the word itself. No wonder The Notorious B.I.G. warned us from beyond the grave that the more money we come across, the more problems we[’d] see… Dollars were causing grief before they even existed.

Marisa Campbell

23 October 2014