The Grammarphobia Blog

Quiddity

Q: Could you tell me where “quid,” the British slang term for pound sterling, comes from? I’ve read online that a paper mill in the town of Quidhampton or the Latin expression quid pro quo may be the source of the term.Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.

A: Lexicographers aren’t certain how we got the word “quid,” a British monetary term that originally referred to a gold sovereign or guinea, and later meant one pound sterling.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that perhaps it comes from the Latin word quid (in this case meaning “what”), “reinterpreted to refer to (monetary) means or wherewithal.” If so, then your comment about quid pro quo isn’t far wrong.

The OED‘s first recorded reference to the word comes from a pornographic tract by the pseudonymous Peter Aretine, Strange Newes from Bartholomew-Fair (1661): “The fool lost his purse, but how he knew not; for the reckoning being suddainly brought in, his Quids were vanisht.”

As for pounds, guineas, and sovereigns, here’s how they accumulated.

The “pound” (punda in Old English) was originally so called because it was worth a pound weight of silver, and was valued at 20 shillings.

The “guinea” was an English gold coin, made between 1663 and 1813, originally worth 20 shillings. It was so called because it was made of gold from Guinea.

The first version of the gold “sovereign” was coined in the 1500s and 1600s; a later gold sovereign worth one pound or 20 shillings was minted beginning in 1817.

Why a sovereign? Because it was imprinted with the image of the reigning monarch.

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