Word of the Month: Piastre

David Zapatka

Reader Chuck Hakkarinen, commenting on the May WOTM column, writes, “In the 20th century, Paladin was the name of the character played by actor Richard Boone in the TV western “Have Gun, Will Travel.” He was quite the dandy, living in San Francisco, quoting the Classics, fast on the draw. I think he typically charged $200 per day plus expenses for his “services” to help defend ordinary citizens against evil-doers. Always wore black. His black pistol holster was embossed with a silver chess knight piece.” Thank you, Chuck, for your feedback.

While traveling in Venice, Italy, two weeks ago, I heard the word “piastre” used. This reminded me of the old Steely Dan song, Dr Wu, where the lyric sung was “Just when I’d spent the last piastre I could borrow.” Are any of you Steely Dan fans?

Piastre (or piaster)—pi·​as·​tre noun: 1. Piece of eight. 2. A basic unit of money equal to ¹⁄₁₀₀ Egyptian, Lebanese, or Syrian pound. 3. Any number of units of currency.

Origin and Etymology—French piastre, from Italian piastra thin metal plate, coin, from Latin emplastra, emplastrum plaster

First Known Use—1592

The term originates from the Italian for “thin metal plate.” The name was applied to Spanish and Hispanic American pieces of eight, or pesos, by Venetian traders. These pesos, minted continually for centuries, were accepted by traders in many parts of the world. After the countries of Latin America gained independence, Mexican pesos began flowing through trade routes and became prolific in the Far East, taking the place of the Spanish pieces of eight which had been introduced by the Spanish at Manila and by the Portuguese at Malacca.

In the Ottoman Empire, the word piastre was a colloquial European name of Kuruş. Successive currency reforms had reduced the value of the Ottoman piastre by the late 19th century to a value about two pence sterling. The name piastre then referred to two distinct kinds of coins in two distinct parts of the world, both of which had descended from the Spanish pieces of eight.

Because of the debased values of the piastres in the Middle East, these piastres became subsidiary units for the Turkish, Cypriot, and Egyptian pounds.

Have you ever heard of piastre used for currency in the U.S. or Canada? Early private bank currency issues in French-speaking regions of Canada were denominated in piastres, and the term continued in official use for some time as a term for the Canadian dollar. The term is still unofficially used in Quebec, Acadian, Franco-Manitoban, and Franco-Ontarian language as a reference to the Canadian dollar much as English speakers say “bucks.” Piastre was also the original French word for the United States dollar, used in the French text of the Louisiana Purchase.

Please write and tell us about any piastres in your pocket. Please submit your experiences or any word you may like to share, along with your insights and comments, to [email protected].