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 does 'E Pluribus Unum' mean?

The Latin phrase "E Pluribus Unum" translates to “Out of many, one.” It was the national motto of the United States until replaced in the 1950s by "In God We Trust" and appears on the Great Seal of the United States of America as well as the Seal of the President of the United States.

The phrase has been mandated to appear on every coin struck by the U.S. Mint since an 1873 law. (Not every U.S. coin issued before and after the implementation of the 1873 act bears the motto, though, so some latitude was granted. ) 

According to a 1995 Coin World article by Michael Hodder, the motto’s presence on coinage goes back quite a bit further than that 1873 law.

"Pride of having been the first coinage to display the national motto goes to the 1786 New Jersey state coppers. Their reverse design incorporates the Union shield in the center with E PLURIBUS UNUM inscribed around it,” Hodder writes. "The E PLURIBUS UNUM motto did not appear on federal issue coins until the 1796 quarter eagles. Both varieties of that date, With and Without Obverse Stars, have as their reverse types the arms of the United States. Of course, the eagle on the arms bears a scroll in its beak on which is inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM.”

The national motto has also appeared on the back of $1 notes since 1935, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury

As for the motto itself, Hodder writes that it likely came from a popular magazine in Great Britain, of all places.

"For many years one of the sayings found on the title page of Gentleman's Magazine was our own motto, E PLURIBUS UNUM. It came from a paraphrase of part of a line from one of the Roman author Virgil's Eclogues, and it originally referred to many bees cooperatively making one sweet product, their honey,” Hodder’s article reads. " E PLURIBUS UNUM appeared on the front of Gentleman's Magazine for many years and it must have become a very familiar sight to the readers of the magazine.”

According to Hodder, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin — who first suggested in 1776 that the phrase appear on the Great Seal of the United States of North America — would have likely been subscribers. Gentleman's Magazine, founded in London 1731, ran for nearly 200 years.

"Its sentiments, that many different hands can unite to create something sweeter and greater than existed before, would have appealed to their republican ideals,” Hodder writes.

The triumvirate’s seal design was turned down due to its inclusion of the arms of Britain along with those of the other European countries that contributed to North American colonization. However, E PLURIBUS UNUM would appear on the heraldic eagle seal designed by William Barton and Charles Thomson that would be adopted by the Continental Congress in 1782.

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.