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
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:
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.
eh? As language enthusiast, I just had to explore this further.
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
enough, but is that derivation of sterling accurate? Is the word
for the traditional English currency standard really of German origin?
more to the story? Is there less?
start by seeing if the Internet can shed any light on the question.
the Free Encyclopedia confirms this etymology as “quite
quoting Webster’s of 1913, does
about lexicographer Eric Partridge? Does he have an opinion to offer?
does. Here’s what he says in his Origins (3rd ed., 1966):
from ME sterling, a silver penny; apparently a diminutive of Middle
English sterre, a star — a device found on certain medieval pennies.
this? No mention of Easterlings? How can this be? Surely the Internet
couldn’t be wrong?
thing left to settle this: check the Oxford.
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.
summarise, it offers three main choices:
steorling (= "coin with a star", from steorra, "star"),
some of the early Norman pennies having a small star on them;
stær (= "a starling"), alluding to the four birds on some coins of
Edward the Confessor;
shortening of Easterling.
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”.
where we came in with the enterprising Mr. Bell.