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SPEAKING OF MONEY

By Ed Reiter
 
 
  When money talks, it speaks a language everyone understands.

 When coin collectors talk, you need an interpreter.

 Take the word “numismatics,” for example. Most people can’t even pronounce it, much less define it. Yet, it pops up in every single book or periodical on coin collecting – frequently in the title.

 “Numismatics,” as it happens, is a highfalutin’ synonym for “coin collecting.” Admittedly, it covers a bit more ground: It includes not only coins but related items, as well. And it goes beyond the hobby to include the science, too. But aside from scholars and sticklers, most of my acquaintances in the hobby –   including those with scientific minds – employ the two expressions interchangeably.

 This raises a pertinent question: Why use a gilt-edged word when a nickel-and-dime term would work just as well – in fact, even better, since a lot more people would understand it.

 The answer, I suspect, is that many coin collectors – or numismatists, as some of them fancy themselves – suffer from a “gilt complex”: Whether collecting coins or coining phrases, they go for the gold – or what they perceive to be gold –  and shun the bronze. To their ears, silence isn’t golden: A polysyllabic noun or adjective is.

 When suitably complex words can’t be found in existing dictionaries, some collectors – excuse me, numismatists – go out and invent new ones.

 “Syngraphics” is one fairly recent example. That, I am told, is a term that was coined – or rather, printed – to describe the collecting and study of paper money. It’s a composite of the Greek words syn (meaning “with” or “together”) and graphikos (meaning “writing”). It’s also derived, more directly, from the Latin word syngrapha, which in Roman times meant a written agreement to pay – a promissory note or a bond.
 “Exonumia” goes back about half a century. But it, too, is a manufactured word. It means the collecting of medals, tokens and other such items that aren’t legal tender but do come under the heading of numismatics. Again, the roots are
Latin (exo, meaning “away from”) and Greek (nomisma, meaning “coin”).

 No such discussion would be complete, I suppose, without a passing reference to “scripophily.” Though it sounds like the name of a vile skin disease, this is actually a term for the study and science of collecting financial documents, such as stocks, bonds and checks.

 I have strenuously avoided using the word “scripophily” in my writings. I must admit, however, that my record is not so pure on “numismatics.” Indeed, for nearly a decade, I was the author of a column by that name. From 1979 to 1989, when I wrote a weekly column on coins for The New York Times, it carried the
one-word title “Numismatics.” I did make an effort to have this simplified, but I soon was informed that “they” liked it just the way it was. In short, it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature – or the people who set the style for The New York Times.

 Presumably, surveys have shown that most Times readers comprehend the word “numismatics.” Still, I have to wonder, since it’s not a word that flows off people’s tongues. My own mother boasted to her friends of my writings on
“numonistics” – and more than one acquaintance has linked me through the years to the “Newsamatic” column in The Times.

 While long, involved words may be the surest way to gain a numismatist’s attention, short, simple coin-words are not necessarily free from complication.

 Want proof? Take “proof.”

 A proof is a special coin produced on a special press. To make one, you need special dies and a special planchet.

 A planchet? That’s a flan. And if you’re drawing a blank, congratulations! A flan, or a planchet, is a blank – a coin blank. It’s the round piece of metal on which a design is stamped to produce a coin.

 You can usually tell a proof by its brilliant, mirror-like surface – unless, of course, it’s a matte proof. In that case, it will have a granular, sandblast appearance.

 And, if it’s a piefort, the planchet will be twice the normal thickness. “Matte” and “piefort” are French words, by the way – which helps explain why coin collectors’ phrases sound so foreign.

 There are Roman-finish proofs, as well. Those have what is known as a “satin” surface. Why satin instead of, say, silk? I haven’t the faintest idea. But I guess we can be thankful that the term came into being before anyone knew
about polyester.

 All this confusion is enough to drive a person to drink – preferably a drink that’s at least 80 proof and satin-smooth. If ever you find yourself feeling so inclined, be careful in your choice of bar keepers. Instead of dispensing potables, some who go by that name are amassing collectibles: “Bar keeper” is a term for a hobbyist who collects metallic bars and ingots – particularly those made of silver.

 If you do locate a bar, don’t get too familiar with anyone who claims to be a “cherry-picker.” Chances are, the cherries he’ll be eyeing aren’t the maraschinos in his highball but the hard-won fruits of your hobby endeavors. In coin collecting parlance, a cherry-picker is someone who selects the very best pieces – or “cherries” – from among a group of coins he is being offered, and turns back the rest to the seller.

 Above all, beware of anyone whizzing sliders. Contrary to what the term may suggest, he won’t be playing shuffleboard or some barroom variation on the theme. Instead, he’ll be wielding a fine wire brush – for “whizzing” is a process in which circulated coins are polished to make them seem in mint condition. “Sliders” are coins of not-quite-uncirculated quality that less-than-ethical dealers sell to the unwary as true mint-state pieces.

 Now that you’ve had a vocabulary lesson, go ahead and down that well-earned drink.

 Actually, coin collecting does have an interesting language, after you get the hang of it – and get over the hangover.

 For sheer eloquence, though, it will never compare with money.

 Money says volumes – without ever uttering a word.
 
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