The British pound sterling is the official currency of the United Kingdom, with the slang term “quid” being a widely used nickname when referencing pound sterling banknotes and coins. But why is a pound called a quid? The origins of this peculiar nickname date back centuries.
What does “quid” mean?
The term “quid” is a slang phrase used to refer to one pound sterling or one pound in weight. It is commonly used in the UK when talking about money such as:
- “This drink costs two quid”
- “I bet twenty quid on the football match yesterday”
- “He earns thirty quid an hour”
So if someone says something costs “a quid”, it means it costs one pound sterling, which is the main currency in the UK.
Etymology of “quid”
The origins of the slang term “quid” can be traced back to the 16th century, deriving from the Latin phrase “Quid pro quo” which translates to “something for something” or “this for that”.
“Quid” became a slang term meaning “pound” in the late 1600s, referring to a pound sterling or a pound in weight. This slang use originated from thieves’ cant or underworld slang popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The first known published use of “quid” to mean “pound” was in 1789 in Francis Grose’s “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue”. He defined quid as:
“Quid – A guinea.”
A guinea was an old British coin worth 1 pound and 1 shilling, equivalent to 21 shillings. So a “quid” was another slang term for a 21 shilling coin or guinea.
When did “quid” become slang for pounds?
Although the slang term quid was used as early as the late 1600s, its usage became much more widespread in the 1800s. This corresponded with the circulation of paper pound banknotes issued by the Bank of England from 1797 onward.
Previously, British money was mainly coins rather than paper money. But with paper banknotes for 1 pound becoming common, people referred to them colloquially as a “quid” just as they did gold guinea coins.
The Bank of England’s report in 1833 recorded and defined the term:
“The one Pound Note is called a Quid.”
By the mid-19th century, quid was being commonly used in literature and everyday speech as slang for a one pound banknote or a pound unit of money in general. For example, we can find it used in Charles Dickens’ 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop:
“The Major was a little noisy in his demonstrations of joy, but intensely affectionate, and Mr Quil walked up to the top of Lisle Street through a shower of blessings.”
Here “Mr Quil” is a reference to and play on the pound monetary unit. The term carried through to modern usage as the standard slang term for a British pound.
Where is “quid” used?
The slang use of “quid” is most commonly used in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as in several countries of the Commonwealth including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Places that were formerly under British rule such as India also still use the term.
In the UK, it is widespread throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is found across British literature from Dickens to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter:
“You’d be mad ter try an’ rob it, I’ll tell yeh that. Never mess with goblins, Harry. Gringotts is hundreds of miles under London, see. Deep under the Underground. Yeh’d die of hunger tryin’ ter get out, even if yeh did manage ter get yer hands on summat.”
Here Hagrid tells Harry Potter the foolishness of attempting to rob Gringotts bank, as the goblins would steal back anything up to hundreds of “quid”.
The term quid is less commonly used in Canada and the United States, where pound sterling was not an official currency. Although the similar slang term “buck” is sometimes used instead for dollars.
Other meanings of quid
While quid is widely known as a slang term for a British pound, it also has some other meanings:
- Quid pro quo – the full Latin phrase meaning “something for something”, which is where quid originally derived from.
- Chewing tobacco or cud – originating from cows chewing their “quid” of grass.
- Eccentric person or character – “He’s a quid” meaning he’s quite odd.
- A sovereign – an old British gold coin worth one pound.
However, the predominant meaning in modern usage is as British slang for one pound sterling or a unit of the currency.
Quid slang around the world
Since the British pound sterling was once the world’s dominant trading currency, quid became a recognized slang term for money in many regions. However, similar sounding slang exists in other languages:
- Buck – Dollar currency in the US and Canada
- Loonie – Canadian one dollar coin
- Simoleons – Slang for dollars or pounds
- Kiwi – New Zealand dollar
- Greenback – U.S. dollars
So while quid has a unique British origin, many cultures use their own variant slang for money and currency. The cross-over of Latin and underworld cant contributed to quid becoming a widely adopted term.
Other British currency slang
Quid is one of many popular British slang terms used for money and pounds sterling that you may hear in the UK:
- Nicker – Five pound note
- Ton – One hundred pounds
- Fiver – Five pound note
- Tenner – Ten pound note
- Score – Twenty pounds
- Pony – Twenty five pounds
So one “quid” refers to one pound specifically, while rhyming or abbreviated slang can refer to other pound amounts. These originals date back over a hundred years in Britain, so they are well ingrained in the culture.
Cockney rhyming slang
Cockney rhyming slang originated in the East End of London and often substituted rhyming words for common terms. Some examples used for money include:
- Lady – Five pounds (from Lady Godiva)
- Score – Twenty pounds (from Score)
- Deep sea diver – Five pounds (from Deep sea diver)
- Bullseye – Ten pounds (from Bullseye)
Only the first word tends to be used rather than the whole phrase. This rhyming playground slang becomes shorthand for pounds or pence.
Pound currency names
While quid is uniquely British, pound currency goes by various nicknames around the world:
|United Kingdom||Pound Sterling||Quid|
|New Zealand||New Zealand dollar||Kiwi|
Some currencies derive from the British term pound, while others like Australia’s dollars are still referred to as “bucks”. Quid remains unique to the British pound sterling.
When the UK didn’t have pounds
Today the pound is intrinsic to British culture and currency. But the UK did not always have pounds as money. Up until the time of Charlemagne in the 8th century AD, Britain mostly used coinage inherited from ancient Rome.
These included denarii, siliquae and solidi – long before the familiar pennies and pounds we know today. King Offa of Mercia introduced the silver penny in 790 AD which became the first distinctly English coin. But it took hundreds of years after the Norman conquest of 1066 for the unified pound currency to fully emerge.
So the pound has not always been a stable British currency. The slang “quid” only emerged after pounds and banknotes were firmly established in Britian from the 1700s onwards.
The pound currency originated from the early term “pound of sterling” referring to a troy pound weight of high purity silver. A pound sterling literally meant one troy pound in weight of sterling silver – a fixed quantity of the metal.
This valued pound weight of silver eventually became the “pound sterling” as a unit of money by the 1340s. The slang term quid evolved from this Pound Sterling centuries later.
Funnily enough, pound coins today are mostly not sterling silver anymore. But the quid nickname endures from those origins.
Etymology of “sterling”
Sterling silver means silver of high purity – at least 92.5% by weight. The term sterling itself has unclear origins, with various theories around it deriving from:
- Easterling – referring to German silver traders
- Estlin – an old English word for coin
- Esterlin – Norman French term for coin
- Steorling – an Old English term meaning little star
Whichever theory is true, sterling came to mean silver coinage of assured purity and quality. Hence the “pound sterling” being a pound by weight of pure fine silver eventually transformed into British currency.
In summary, the peculiarly British slang term “quid” emerged from an intriguing history to become a colloquial synonym for pounds or money:
- Quid originated from Latin meaning “something for something”
- It was adopted as thieves’ cant for “pound” by the 17th century
- Banknotes increased quid usage in the 1800s for one pound
- Quid is still used informally in modern British speech and writing
- It derives from historic pounds of sterling silver coins
The quirky nickname endures from a time when one pound sterling literally meant a pound weight in silver. So next time you hear someone British refer to “a few quid”, you’ll know it harks back to the days of sterling silver coins. For British currency, quid and pound are forever intertwined in its slang and origins.