A myth with a silver lining

Q: I was reading a book review in the Weekly Standard that said “sterling” (as in “pound sterling”) is an abbreviation of “Easterling,” a reference to the Byzantine empire and its stable gold coin, the solidus. Is this true? Or too good to be true?

A: It’s too good to be true; “sterling” didn’t come from “Easterling,” and “Easterling” didn’t refer to Byzantium. But the truth is pretty good too. Here’s the story, which reaches back into medieval history.

Until recently, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sterling” was believed to be short for “Easterling,” but Byzantium wasn’t involved and this belief has now gone the way of the sixpence.

The word “sterling” entered English in Anglo-Norman times, when it was the name given to the English silver penny first coined after the Norman Conquest.

In its earliest appearance in writing, in the late 11th or early 12th century, the word is spelled in the French manner, “esterlin,” and an Anglo-Latin version, sterlingus, was recorded in 1180.

The current form (originally spelled “sterlynge”) first appeared in 1297.

The word’s origin is uncertain, but the OED suggests it was derived from the Old English steorra (“star”) plus “-ling,” a suffix added to nouns to form new and sometimes diminutive versions.

Some of the new Norman pennies had a small star on them, and since steorra was Old English for “star,” a late Old English word steorling (literally “little star”) could have meant “coin with a star.”

The OED calls this the “most plausible” explanation for the word’s etymology.

A couple of earlier theories have been abandoned, including one that the Old English staer (“starling,” the bird) is the source.

Some older pennies, from before the Conquest, did carry the image of four birds, but this explanation is not taken seriously anymore.

And the “Easterling” theory?

The belief arose because antiquarians in the 16th and 17th centuries assumed the coin was originally minted by “Easterling moneyers”—that is, German and Baltic money coiners.

This explanation, says the OED, has also fallen by the wayside.

As for Byzantium, we find no reliable source that says it was ever referred to as “Easterling.”

(A classical scholar, P. E. Easterling, has written about the Byzantine period.  And J. R. R. Tolkien used the term for people from the east of his fictional Middle-earth.)

Back in the real world, the Norman silver penny was highly respected, and was used as currency on the Continent as well as in Britain.

As the OED says, “Continental examples are frequent in the 13th cent., the excellence of the English penny having procured for it extensive currency in foreign countries.”

Thus there were words in many other languages for the “sterling” coin.

In 13th-century Britain, a “pound of sterlings” (later simply “pound sterling”) was originally a pound’s weight of silver pennies—or about 240 pence.

This is the source of “pound” as a British monetary unit.

In the 15th century, people began using the adjective “sterling” to describe silver as pure as the standard penny. In later usages, “sterling silver” meant silver of a particular quality.

In the 16th century, “sterling” also came to mean money as good as the standard silver penny. It also meant, more generally, genuine English money (or English as opposed to foreign money).

Later, “sterling” was also used figuratively to describe something fine or pure.

Here’s an early example, from a 1647 letter by the historian and political writer James Howell: “ ’Twas your judgement, which all the world holds to be sound and sterling, induced me hereunto.”

Finally, here’s a more poetic example, from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896): “Then the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.”

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