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Ask Mint | What the rupee needs is a ‘symbolic’ anecdote

Ask Mint | What the rupee needs is a ‘symbolic’ anecdote
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First Published: Mon, Apr 20 2009. 12 23 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Apr 20 2009. 12 23 AM IST
Do you remember the symbol of Russian ruble or Korean won? There are hundreds of other currencies whose symbols you would not recall having seen. That’s because the majority of currencies in the world have no symbol to speak of. Many currencies have just learnt to live without feeling the urge to discover their own identity.
But anybody just scribbling anything would not make a currency symbol. What’s a currency symbol worth if your grandma can’t tell you a good bedtime story of how it all came into being?
Johnny: I think, Jinny, our forefathers were not really money-minded. That’s why I don’t remember my grandma ever telling me how the “Rs” symbol of Indian rupee came into existence.
Jinny: Well, don’t blame your grandma. The “Rs” sign, which we most commonly use for the Indian rupee, is not an exclusive symbol of our currency. Many other countries also use the “Rs” sign with minor variations in fonts to denote their currency. There is probably nothing interesting to tell you about how such a practice of one symbol being shared by many currencies came into existence. Maybe by chance or maybe due to lack of interest; many factors can lead to a country not acquiring a well-known symbol for its currency.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Johnny: Then how come some currencies in the world, such as the US dollar, the British pound or the Japanese yen, have well-known symbols. Can you tell me, Jinny, who designed their symbols?
Jinny: The discoveries of symbols for well-known currencies have gone through such a long process of evolution that it is difficult to trace exactly how a particular symbol might have evolved. A series of freak accidents leading to meaningful patterns, you can say. There are several explanations on how the famous “$” symbol for the US dollar might have originated. I can’t say which explanation is correct but they do make an interesting story. According to one view, the dollar sign has been derived from the Spanish pesos, which were in wide circulation in North America during the 15th and 19th centuries. In the beginning, pesos were written down as Ps, but over a period of time a practice of putting the long stroke of P as a part of S developed. I can’t say exactly how, but S when combined with only the vertical stroke of P led to the present “$” symbol for the dollar.
This must have taken many years. What at one time may have looked like the mixing of P and S by some careless trader, slowly developed over many years as a symbol of the mighty dollar. Interestingly, nobody actually planned or supervised the whole process. Everything was fixed by chance. I am sure if the Americans had actually tried, they would not have come up with a better symbol.
Johnny: Great inventions are sometimes made without any planning. But tell me, Jinny, what are the other stories behind the origin of the dollar symbol?
Jinny: Another interesting explanation made popular by author Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged is that the dollar symbol represents the initials of the US. Rand was referring to the older version of writing the dollar symbol with two downward strokes over the letter S. It looks as if someone tried to superimpose the capital letter U over the capital letter S and ended with the dollar sign with two downward strokes. Rand believed that the dollar sign carries much deeper meaning than what people generally perceive; it represents not just a currency but a whole country and a way of life. To search for a deeper meaning, some anecdotists have even tried to delve into history.
Another explanation is that the Spanish peso coins used to have two pillars engraved on the reverse side to symbolize the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar and the words “Plus Ultra”, indicating that beyond the pillars were other lands. It is believed that these two pillars might have inspired some creative mind to put two downward strokes over the letter S.
At present the dollar symbol of S with single stroke is popular; but after hearing different theories of origin, it is really difficult to say whether originally the dollar sign used a single stroke or double strokes. Maybe the single stroke was modified into double strokes over the course of time, or maybe it is the other way round. The style of using the single stroke or double stroke may have evolved independently, with sophisticated intellectuals using the two pillars at Gibraltar whereas down-to-earth traders used the vertical stroke of P with S.
Johnny: With so many anecdotes available, nothing can be said for sure, Jinny. But tell me, what can we do now to really get a symbol for the Indian rupee?
Jinny: More than design, we need to develop an anecdote. Look at our cultural heritage, caves full of pillars; we can surely pull out something which has an attractive message.
Johnny: That’s true, Jinny. Future grandmas may well get a good story for their grandchildren.
What:Currency symbols such as $ and £ are used to denote different currencies.
How: Most of the well-known currency symbols have evolved after long usage.
Why: It is difficult to trace the usage of many popular currency symbols due to their long process of evolution.
Shailaja and Manoj K. Singh have important day jobs with an important bank. But Jinny and Johnny have plenty of time for your suggestions and ideas fortheir weekly chat. You can write to both of them at realsimple@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Apr 20 2009. 12 23 AM IST