A favourite place in my childhood was the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. It is a full-on history museum, with rooms covering many different times and places. It was always worth the money to visit (well, my parents paid, but at least for a time a visit there was one available weekly reward for cleaning my room).
There was a room full of suits of armor, for instance. There was, in a recreation of an early 20th century store awaiting customers, an old machine that you could put a nickel in and crank the handle to watch a flip-frame of a buxom lady in a Victorian one-piece dancing a shimmy. And there was the dark-walled, dimly lit room labeled Numismatics.
Numismatics! Such a heavy, impressive word. Four syllables, with twin m’s in the heart and an n to start (echoes of museum?), and then the scientific, esoteric atic, smacking of charismatic and automatic and mathematic and perhaps just a little lunatic. It was a dark, heavy word for a dark room, a complex word like the name of some secret society or the password they use as a token for entry.
Of course, they could have just labelled the room Coins, with its two coin-shaped letters no less (c and o, I mean), and had done with it. But that is a light and common word. Numismatics is a word that has the fug and pong of alchemy; it feels almost as though it has been discovered in a pharaoh’s tomb. Coins, after all, are things you dig out of your pocket in daylight and use as parsley to the main dish of your banknotes or drop into slots with the hope of unjust return. Numismatics are stamped slugs of metal resting in velvet under glass and spot lighting. Or, anyway, numismatics is the branch of study that involves such displays.
In numismatics you will hear the influence of the Latin for ‘coin’, nummus. This may seem a soft word for hard metal clinking things, but if you listen to “In terra summus rex” from the original (not Orff’s) Carmina Burana, you can hear it shouted as though striking coins – it lacks the clang but it has the heft and punch. Which fits the attitude: the song is a critical piece about venality and the money-centred customs of the church and other segments of society.
And customs is a good word here, because the Greek word that is the true root of numismatics is νόμισμα nomisma, ‘money, coinage’, which comes from νόμος nomos ‘usage, custom’, a root that also shows up in places such as autonomous. I’m sure it’s almost coincidence that you may have to pay coin at customs (an organ of an autonomous political entity) to bring in any of a number of nummy things. And, for that matter, things numismatic too, if they are ancient and of value.
What good fortune that the coin of my realm is words. There is no barrier to their importation. On the other hand, they are not so remunerative either, as they are easily replicable. But we may nonetheless view them in velvet under carefully controlled conditions.
Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting today’s word.