Where did the word “numismatics” come from? First documented as an English word in the early part of the 1800s, this word derived from a French adjective, numismatiques, which means "of coins." In turn, that word came from the Latin word for “coin.” The meaning of the word gets even more interesting when the Latin word gets traced back to the original Greek that it was borrowed from. After some iterations, the word came from the Greek nemō, or "I dispense or divide."


Know your U.S. coins: "Buffalo" Indian Head 5 cent

Renowned sculptor James Earle Fraser was fascinated by the American Indian, so much so that it was no surprise he chose an Indian motif for the 5-cent coin design. And the bison design for the reverse made a perfect companion image.

It is arguably the most "American" of all United States coins and is a collector favorite.

COIN VALUES: See how much Buffalo nickels are worth today

Fraser's artistic prowess earned the undying respect of a dying Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who recommended Fraser to President Theodore Roosevelt to sculpture the official presidential bust. Roosevelt and Fraser became quick friends.

Despite the fact that William Howard Taft was president in 1912, Roosevelt recommended that Fraser be chosen to design the copper-nickel 5-cent coin, overdue by five years for a design change. In the early 20th century, coin designs were automatically changed every 25 years.

The obverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent coin, commonly called the "Buffalo nickel," depicts a large, powerful portrait of an Indian, facing right. The appearance is rough-hewn, unlike the smooth cheeks and other facial features that characterize innumerable Liberty renditions.

The portrait is purported to be a composite of three Indians, although the identities of the models have been disputed. A few Native Americans laid claim to be the model for the coin. Frazer identified the models as Iron Tail, a Sioux; Big Tree, a Kiowa; and Two Moons, a Cheyenne. All three visited Roosevelt while in New York City, according to Fraser, who studied and photographed them during their stay.

Fraser's designer initial, F, appears incuse below the date on the obverse.

More is known about the American bison that served as the model for the reverse design.

It was Black Diamond, an inhabitant of the New York Zoological Park. Fraser employed a little artistic license to portray the bison as though he were living free on the Great Plains. The stuffed head of Black Diamond was displayed at a major coin convention during the 1980s.

During the inaugural 1913 year, two distinct subtypes were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints: the Bison on Mound and the Bison on Plain.

Because of the fear that the five cents denomination legend on the reverse would wear off quickly in circulation, Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber modified the reverse hub. Barber placed five cents within an exergue to protect it from excessive wear, and smoothing down the roughened fields, reducing the mound to level ground.

Among the challenging dates to find are the 1916 Doubled Die, of which approximately 100 pieces in all grades are believed to exist. The 1918/7-D coin was created during a die shortage when a 1917 working die was impressed with that of a hub dated 1918.

The 1937-D Three-Legged Bison coin resulted from a Mint technician over polishing a reverse die, taking away a portion of one of the two forelegs.

The Indian Head 5-cent coin is a popular series with collectors. High-quality collections offered for sale at coin shows are quickly gobbled up to meet market demand.

After its legislated 25-year run, the Indian Head 5-cent coin was replaced in 1938 by a new design depicting the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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Community Comments

Numismatics is about more than just coins.

While many people use numismatics as a general term to refer only to the study of coins, this word actually refers to the study of all kinds of money. As such, it includes the study of coins and also paper bills, tokens, and other related objects that have been used as currency by various people throughout history, as well as noncurrency items like medals. Some kinds of money used at different points in history might surprise novice numismatists; for example, a culture might have used shells as a currency. 

Barter, or the trade of objects and services for other objects and services, has long been used in the marketplace and continues today. In some cases, the line between barter and currency still provides a topic of debate, but in most cases, articles about numismatics cover subjects like coins and paper money. Numismatics might become easier to comprehend by understanding the numismatic values of coins and paper money, and this refers to the value of a coin or note that is higher than the intrinsic or face value. In other words, this could also be called the collectible value. For example, a historical gold coin has an inherent value that is based upon its bullion value. It may also have a face value, or the actual value of the money assigned by the country that produced it. However, that same coin might be worth much more than the gold or the face value because it is rare, historically significant, beautiful, and/or designed by a famous artist.

Ultimately, understanding numismatics really depends upon understanding the nature of money. In the past, money might have been shells, gems, or precious metals. Today, most societies rely upon coins and paper money, but in this digital age, even that has begun to change as billions of dollars get exchanged every day electronically without the need for physical currency. Even more revolutionary, there are new digital currencies that have never been based upon any nation's physical currency. As it has in the past, it is likely that the study of numismatics will continue to evolve as currency evolves.