[ Issue 42 ]

Sterling fascinates Emily Bronto

Permit Bikwil to acquaint you with the fascination of Sterling


Harlish Goop escapes The Great Fire of London determined to study the origins of the word sterling.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


I recently finished The Great Fire of London in 1666 by Walter George Bell, written in 1920. This was the first study of the catastrophe — including its causes and aftermath — that was based on research using primary sources. As such, it dispels many myths and is well worth reading.

During the course of the narration, Bell speaks of the influence of merchants in seventeenth century London, particularly those known as the Hanseatic Guild. These traders were a famous political and commercial league of northern German towns (notably Hamburg, Lübeck and Danzig) that had had a trading house in London since at least the fourteenth century.
Here’s what Bell writes:

The keen Hanse merchants had played an important part in founding London's commercial greatness, and they occupied a large settlement where today, borne on high arches, the trains run into Cannon Street station. No name in the locality bears them remembrance, but they have left in England one curious vestige of their stay. The money of the “Easterlings” was so much sought after for its good quality that a "pound Easterling", or sterling, became the recognised standard of gold coinage.

Intriguing, eh? As language enthusiast, I just had to explore this further.

First things first. An Easterling was what the English in mediaeval times called someone from the east, and they applied it chiefly to natives of eastern Germany or the Baltic coasts, especially the citizens of the Hanseatic towns.

Fair enough, but is that derivation of sterling accurate? Is the word for the traditional English currency standard really of German origin?

Is there more to the story? Is there less?

Let’s start by seeing if the Internet can shed any light on the question.

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia confirms this etymology as “quite possible”.

So, quoting Webster’s of 1913, does HyperDictionary.

What about lexicographer Eric Partridge? Does he have an opinion to offer?

Yes, he does. Here’s what he says in his Origins (3rd ed., 1966):

derives from ME sterling, a silver penny; apparently a diminutive of Middle English sterre, a star — a device found on certain medieval pennies.

What’s this? No mention of Easterlings? How can this be? Surely the Internet couldn’t be wrong?

Oh, yeah?

Only one thing left to settle this: check the Oxford.

As you would expect, the OED, not content with a measly “origin uncertain”, considers in detail all possibilities for the derivation of sterling. It even includes a discussion of the word’s earliest use in British Latin texts of the twelfth century.

To summarise, it offers three main choices:

late OE. steorling (= "coin with a star", from steorra, "star"), some of the early Norman pennies having a small star on them;

from stær (= "a starling"), alluding to the four birds on some coins of Edward the Confessor;

from a shortening of Easterling.

In the end, however, the OED opts for the “star” explanation as being the most plausible.
To tidy up the Easterling hypothesis, it tells us that the belief regarding the Hanseatic connection goes right back to the beginning of the fourteenth century and was “until recently, the prevailing view”.

Which is where we came in with the enterprising Mr. Bell.

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