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."


What is a die break and are coins that feature them more valuable?

A small number of 1888-O Morgan dollars feature a die crack that has led to variety's "Scarface" nickname.

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Editor's note: The following post is part of CoinWorld.com's 'Collecting Basics' series, which provides novice readers with an introduction into the numismatic hobby.

A marginal die break, or cud, occurs when a coin is struck from a die that is missing a piece that is adjacent to the rim, and a “featureless, raised glob of metal,” as William T. Gibbs noted in a Coin World column from the Nov. 8, 1993, issue, is left on the coin as the more pliable coin material, such as gold or silver, fills the hole in the die left by the missing piece.

The closely related die crack error results from a fracture in the die though no piece of the die actually breaks away, at least immediately after the crack forms. Metal can flow up into the crack, forming a raised line on the coin.

"Broken dies result from a tendency of some metals, particularly certain alloys of steel, to become incredibly hard, to the point of becoming brittle,” Gibbs wrote.

"While such hard metals can be used to shape and form softer metals, their lack of pliability can be their downfall if they begin to crack and break under pressure.”

Bill Fivaz explained in a Collectors’ Clearinghouse column from the July 6, 2009, issue of Coin World that a die break is “progressive in nature”; it begins as a die crack, then grows to a break as the damaged die continues to be used.

“The longer the die is in use, the larger the die break becomes until it is retired from service or completely breaks,” Fivaz writes.

The value of a coin with a die break or a die crack often depends on the size and severity of the fracture in the die. In general, die breaks or cuds are worth more than die cracks.

A popular type of major die break error on the Lincoln cent is nicknamed the “atheist cent” because the break or cud affects the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, obscuring portions or all of the inscription. Recent eBay transactions included pieces of different dates and Mint marks selling in a range from $22 to $65.

Most die crack errors are minor and are of low value, but there are some exceptions.

One of the more famous die cracks appears on a small number of 1888-O Morgan dollars, which are also affectionately referred to by collectors as the Scarface variety.

The crack starts at the rim between E and P of PLURIBUS on the obverse and runs in toward the center of the coin, under Liberty's eye and across her cheek to her neck. The variety is considered scarce in all grades.

For example, at an Aug. 7, 2014, Heritage auction an example of the variety graded Mint State 62 with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker indicating quality within the grade sold for $7,637.50. The price of a normal 1888-O Morgan dollar in this grade: around $60.

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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.