Thursday, December 27, 2007

Coin of the Realm, redux



Tom Phillips from Suttons Bay, Michigan, was looking for information on the phrase, “coin of the realm.” In its literal sense, it meant the legal currency of a given political unit. In its early existence, the word coin had multiple spellings, all deriving from a Latin word meaning corner or wedge [cuneus]. The coin was struck with a wedge-shaped device holding a die that imprinted image and inscription on a blank disc. In time, the word transferred from the die to the money itself. After many centuries, the spelling coin is now reserved for the money, and quoin has been allocated to the corner, angle, or wedge.

Ultimately, the phrase coin of the realm developed into a figurative sense: something valued or used as if it were money in a particular sphere. Here are some diverse examples:

• “Fear, of course, has been the coin of the realm for oppressive and dictatorial governments throughout history. Frighten the citizenry and they’ll practically beg you to take away their freedom.” [Future of Freedom Foundation]
• “Latte is the coin of the realm.” [Joseph Gallivan]
• “Credibility is the coin of the realm.” [Dana Blankenhorn, quoting George Schultz]
• “Scholarly books are the coin of the realm of knowledge.” [Peter Givler]
• “Information is the coin of the realm in the capital.” [Eloise Salholz]
• “On the web, English becomes the coin of the realm.” [WSJ.com]
• "The MBA generally is recognized as the coin of the realm for graduate business education." [Stanley Gabor ]

In other coin-operated phrases, you may end up coining a phrase when you look at the other side of the coin and then pay someone in his own coin.

In his 1821 essay On Familiar Style, British writer William Hazlitt nicely brought the literal and figurative senses together:

“All provincial or bye-phrases come under the same mark of reprobation — all such as the writer transfers to the page from his fireside or a particular coterie, or that he invents for his own sole use and convenience. I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value. I am fastidious in this respect, and would almost as soon coin the currency of the realm as counterfeit the King's English.”

SIDEBAR: Coin of the Realm


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