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Back in Spanish.StackExchange there was a question about the use of the word plata (literally "silver") in American dialects of Spanish instead of the proper word, dinero. European Spanish also avoids dinero, preferring the term pasta (lit. "paste"). There are a lot of other, more localized terms like those. Nobody uses dinero except in formal contexts. I was intrigued by this because it looked like some widespread phenomenon.

There's a tendency in Spanish, and even more so in English, to name certain banknotes and multiples of currency units with special terms, but this is not it. There's also a taboo, in certain cultures, against speaking of money, but that doesn't mean money cannot be mentioned, only that asking someone about their income, for example, is viewed as impolite.

Is there a recognized tendency to name money after other things (such as precious metals) to the point of almost replacing, in most conversations, the proper term for "money"? Has it been studied cross-linguistically?

  • There definitely is a tendency. Maybe edit the title of the question to match the actual question at the end? – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 23 at 10:52
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    In Akkadian, "to pay" is kaspam nadānum, literally "to give silver", or kaspam šaqālum, literally "to weigh out silver". However I don't think there even is a generic word for "money", so it probably reflects bleaching of the term (from "silver" to "money") rather than avoiding taboo. – Keelan Jun 23 at 13:47
  • In Romanian, plata means payment. – Lucian Jun 24 at 9:39
  • The fact that money, Geld, argent shows that there's historically no fixed term. That might look like taboo, I don't know. – vectory Jun 24 at 18:16
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Although anecdotally the answer to the question is a confident "yes", there is a big complication: the many concepts of economic value that are bundled into the Western European concept of "money". This of course is a question for historical economics and anthropology, more than linguistics.

A related question would be the question of the origins of the words for money. This often relates to the following:

  • The physical manifestation of the currency system, whether that's "silver" (as in French argent, Thai เงิน ngoen, Irish airgead, Tibetan དངུལ dngul), "metal" (as in Japanese かね, kane), "cattle" (as in Classical Latin pecunia, Old English feoh [modern English fee]) or "squirrel pelts" (Finnish raha).
  • The location or characteristics of a specific currency (for example the temple of Juno Moneta in Rome, giving rise to English money; or the one-tenth nature of the denarius, producing Spanish dinero; or the "solid" nature of the solidus gold coin, producing Italian soldi; a northern European ancestor of "penny", giving rise to Swedish pengar as well as Czech peníze; Swahili shilingi from the pre-decimal British currency and pesa from the Indian currency).
  • The verbs to do with nature of currency, including giving (whence German Geld) or desiring (giving rise to Modern Greek χρήμα, khríma) or taking (such as Latvian nauda).
  • A generic word for "thing", often leading to "value" and thence to "money" (e.g. Bengali অর্থ ôrthô).

However, there are many origins which are still very much under debate, where we can only reconstruct ancient forms and then tentatively attach them to possible roots (e.g. Chinese 錢 [Mandarin qián, Cantonese cin4*2], possibly related to spades/knives or the Classical Chinese word for thin; Korean 돈 don, possibly related to the verb for "to turn").

I think the question can be rephrased slightly:

  • Is the semantic field of "money" more susceptible to change than average?

Again, the evident answer is "yes", because of its ubiquity in daily life but also its large power. Although top-down changes like the Zambia / Tanzania example are rare, the "emotionally charged nature" means that:

the semantic field of money is often taken to be one of the most fertile areas of word formation in slang[.]

Although I've not (yet?) seen any denigration of a formal word for "money" due to taboo (although in modern Japanese the rise of お金 o-kane as a polite form for 金 kane may attest to this), there are plenty of euphemisms for types of debt and other adverse economic situations. More commonly for "money" itself, it is expressivity that is desired, and hence metaphor and metonymy add greater colour to a piece of daily life.

  • Tidbit: all of solidus, moneta and denarius made it into Italian: the first, as you said, as soldi, the latter two as moneta and denaro (or less common danaro). Moneta refers to either a particular currency ("l'Euro è una moneta"), or coins ("ho il portafoglio pieno di monete"); soldi and denaro are more or less interchangeable in meaning, although soldi is more colloquial and denaro more formal. – LjL Jun 24 at 20:56

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