Just Starting Out

Numismatics: Just Call It Money

Published February 8, 2024 | 5 min read

By Ken Bressett

Listen to this article

The ANA’s Edward C. Rochette Money Museum sits on the Colorado College campus in beautiful downtown Colorado Springs. Prominently displayed on the building are signs identifying it as the American Numismatic Association Money Museum, which houses the finest lending library and collection of coin-related items in the country. While this structure is a mecca for those who understand and appreciate the collection’s significance, the building and its signage lead to confusion for others.

The most frequent misinterpretation comes from the words “numismatic” and the appellation “ANA,” which also refers to the American Nurses Association, American Nutrition Association, or All Nippon Airways. Hardly a week goes by without someone walking into the building asking if this is a medical clinic. My heart goes out to the poor receptionist who must explain the difference. Fortunately, some of the visitors find the resources so fascinating that they stay and explore the exhibits.

Numismatics is the fascinating study and collection of coins, tokens, medals, paper money, and other forms of currency.

What’s in a Name?

When I look back on my lifetime involvement in this captivating hobby, I can’t remember when I first learned the meaning of the word numismatics. It was not listed in any of the early publications or coin books I read. They all seemed to purposely omit the term, perhaps to avoid confusion.

Most dictionaries and glossaries have described numismatics as studying and collecting coins, medals, tokens, and paper money. The word was, and still is, more widely used and accepted in Europe. Its first American usage was around 1830, appearing in a few auction catalogs. The noun numismatics and the adjective numismatic come from the French word numismatiques. The French term is derived from the Latin word numismatis and the Greek nomisma, meaning “coin.” Nomisma, in turn, derives from the Greek verb nomizein (“to use”) and ultimately from the noun nomos (“custom” or “law”). From these roots, we also get numismatist, referring to a person who collects coins, medals, tokens, or paper money. Interestingly, along the way, nomos became the name of the denomination of several ancient coins from central Italy.

When I served as editor of Whitman books and coin products, I was taught by R. S. Yeoman (author of the iconic “Red Book”) to avoid elaborate words like numismatics and, whenever possible, use alternate terms that would appeal more to ordinary collectors. Most other publications, authors, books, and editors have done the same. The ANA’s official publication, The Numismatist, was founded in 1888 (initially as The American Numismatist) and continues to use the name to this day.

Today’s definition of numismatics is further reaching. In earlier times, it did not embrace paper money or primitive ethnographic items but always included orders and decorations. As a discipline, it refers to a person who collects or studies these items.

Additional Terms

There are so many kinds of currency and currency substitutes that the field of numismatics has now been segmented into various subfields. Each subfield focuses on a specific type of numismatic collectible:

Notaphily is the study and collection of paper money. The word combines nota, meaning “paper money, ” with the Greek phily, meaning “love.” Notaphilists collect paper money, including bank notes and checks.

Exonumia is the study of tokens, medals, and other similar objects. This term excludes coins and paper money. Exonumia combines the Greek word exo, meaning “out of,” and nummus, meaning “coin.” These items are used in place of currency or to commemorate events and accomplishments. Exonumia is largely focused on commemorative military medals that are awarded for contributions in war and military expeditions and also includes “Good For” tokens, counterstamped coins (repurposed coins that were stamped to change their denomination or intended use), elongated coins, wooden nickels, and much more.

Scripophily is the study of securities, such as stock and bond certificates. Scripophily combines the Greek word for love and the English word scrip, for ownership. Scripophilists collect these instruments for their beauty, rarity, and historical significance.

We live in an ever-changing world, and numismatics remains vital in society. And despite being a mouthful of a word, numismatics isn’t going anywhere. It is a fascinating and dynamic hobby that attracts countless collectors across multiple generations. So, call it whatever you want, but I just call it “money.”