Money seems to be about gold but banks about silver. Is this due to an evolution of the status of the valuable metals themselves? Is it a complicated (e.g. ateji) etymology?


Firstly, the native word 金(かね) in お金 only means metal and not gold. You may have mixed it up with the Sino-Japanese 金(きん) that means gold (it also means metal as a morpheme, but not for a standalone word). The native word for gold is こがね "yellow-metal". Thus money is called お金 just because coins are made of metals. No mystery :)

On the other hand, 銀行 is a relatively newly imported word from Chinese originally means 銀 "silver" + 行 "guild". What was traditionally the standard money in Japan is a quite debatable topic (gold, silver, copper, or rice??), but China has a long tradition of silver standard system, so that's why silver is the synonym of money for them.

  • Interesting, I'm finding explanations that 銀行 is a wasei-kango. – dROOOze Apr 28 '19 at 7:00
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    @droooze FYI I've found old Chartered Bank and HSBC banknotes issued on 1865, prior to Japanese Meiji restroration, have 銀行 printed on their face. – broccoli facemask Apr 28 '19 at 7:28
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    Ahhh okay, as ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%8A%80%E8%A1%8C suggests and from what I could find the first appearance of the term does indeed look like its from the name of HSBC. I guess I didn't find the explanation convincing at first because China had bank-type establishments since the Song Dynasty called 錢莊, and 銀行 originally referred to a Silversmith-type profession in Classical Chinese. – dROOOze Apr 28 '19 at 7:31
  • At some point it was decided to use 金 for かね, not 銀, etc.Why? – Mathieu Bouville Apr 28 '19 at 8:56
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    @droooze Thank you for your input. That info adds to fun when you know that the earliest form of banking in England was assumed by goldsmiths. – broccoli facemask Apr 28 '19 at 10:48

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