The term ‘numismatics’ comes from the Latin word nomisma or numisma, meaning ‘coin’. This in turn is derived from the Greek νομισμα νομοσ = custom, law. Aristoteles is quoted as saying: “A coin is called ‘nomisma’ because it exists not by nature but by law”. The word ‘numismatics’ is the study or collection of currency, including coins and tokens. It is a science that is closely linked to history, art and economics. A numismatist is a specialist in currency, coins and tokens (knows as numismate / numismaat / Numismatiker in other European languages).
To recognise and understand coin-related descriptions, it is useful to know not only what the terms mean but also where to find them on a coin. The photo shows the most common numismatics-related terms and which parts of a coin they refer to.
Coin collecting is a popular hobby and area of study worldwide. Specimens are often described and/or offered for sale in several different languages, especially since the rise of the internet. Further on on this page we will explain some numismatics-related terms in more detail.
For a more extensive list (including Italian and Spanish) you can also refer to the Encyclopedie van munten en papiergeld.
Since the early 18th century there have been various attempts – some more successful than others – to adorn coin edges with decorative details or lettering. But why did people go to such great lengths to add details to the – often very narrow – edges?
The main reason is that up until that time, coins had smooth (i.e. untreated) edges, making it easy for people to use a penknife or file to remove tiny pieces from a coin before spending it. Needless to say, this meant that gold and silver coins in particular were a source of substantial profit for criminals. As long ago as 1671, a die-cutter who opposed this criminal practice was one of the first to attempt to put a stop to it by placing the following Latin text on a coin: NERVOS REIPVBLICAE ACCIDERE FACINVS MORTE PIANDVM which means something along the lines of CLIPPING THE NERVE OF THE STATE IS A CRIME THAT SHOULD BE PUNISHABLE BY DEATH! Adding text to the coin edges clearly made clipping a lot more difficult which is why, during the Batavian Republic, most coins had a ridged (or ‘reeded’) edge. During the reign of Louis Bonaparte, trials were even conducted in an effort to inscribe text into the edges.
There can be some confusion about the direction of the slanted ridges. The original method was to hold the coin upright and then look at the edge. If the ridges slanted from bottom-right to top-left, this was noted as reeded left. If the ridges were angled from bottom-left to top-right, this was called reeded right. The problem is that if the coin was held differently – e.g. horizontally – this produced the exact opposite effect.
Needless to say, this was the source of many misunderstandings. That’s why I advocate a different approach: lay the coin down flat – it doesn’t matter which side is facing upwards – and then observe the edge and describe the ridging as outlined above. This gives a clear and unambiguous result, albeit in the opposite direction from the old method!!
See the image here.
© Laurens Schulman B.V. 2023