What has the American dollar got to do with Kenya’s Rift Valley? Nothing. Nothing, that is, except that much of that currency —which is in demand in all countries—is reported to have gone into that Kenyan province to help rehabilitate displaced people.
But, in that case, we may say that the dollar has simply returned to its home of linguistic origin. No, the dollar did not originate in Kenya. The only certainty is that the original home was a valley. In short, the word dollar comes from an ancient Teutonic word which means valley.
That prototype was what produced also the modern German thal (valley) and the Scandinavian and Scottish dale (“open valley”). Dale (originally pronounced like dally) also often occurs in English poetry – as in the line “O’er hill, o’er dale” (in one of Shakespeare’s delightful comedies.)
The name (Walter) Mondale, a former American presidential candidate, means “moon valley”. We also find dale and dalesman in Dalesman (which is William Ruto’s equivalent of Raila Odinga as janam, Joe Nyaga as jagot and Najib Balala as jamwalo.
Specifically, dollar was the thinning down of ‘Joachimsthaler’, the name of a 16th-century silver mine in Germany’s Joachimsthal (“Joachim’s dale”). The German word thal or tal appears in another well known term. Neanderthal (“Neander Valley”) was where, near Dusseldorf, the first fossils of a type of homo were discovered in 1857.
This early homo sapiens – Cro-Magnon’s precursor – is thus called Neanderthal man. A person living in a thal was (is) called a thaler – which was how Joachim’s silver mine was personified as a thaler.
(To Mark Twain’s delight—as recorded in his hilarious skit, The Awful German Language)—all German nouns are upper-cased. This distinguishes them from all other parts of speech and establishes some Ararat on which a beginner can rest his ark as he explores one of the most slippery of all languages).
Thaler and thousands of other words were taken by German immigrants to Pennsylvania, where, to this day, the people still speak something called “Pennsylvanian Dutch” – even though the word “Dutch” here has nothing to do with Holland, but is a corruption of Deutch (the German word for “German”).
It was in Pennsylvania and other predominantly German settlements in America that the sound “th” in thaler was hardened into the sound “d” to transform thaler into daler (pronounced “dahlah”). But it was Thomas Jefferson who, in 1782, changed daler into “dollar”, urging that his distortion be adopted as the name of a new legal tender for the 13 colonies which had just rebelled against England.
In Notes on a Money Unit for the United States, he argued that Spain’s currency, a variant of the term, was already well known to the colonists.
Three years later, the dollar was adopted as the currency. Yet, though dollars were not printed till a decade later, by Woodrow Wilson’s time in the 1920s, the dollar had become so powerful that America’s coercive readiness with slush funds abroad was already known pejoratively as the “Dollar Diplomacy”.
The author is a veteran editor.