What is the etymology of 'cash'? According to the OED when it is used in 'cash-box' it descends from the French 'casse', and presumably Italian 'cassa'. However the word meaning 'loose change' is from the Tamil word 'kasu'. The question arises as to whether English used 'cash' before they began to have dealings with southern India?

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    Etymonline notes: Not related to (but influencing the form of) the colonial British cash "Indian monetary system, Chinese coin, etc.," which is from Tamil kasu, Sanskrit karsha, Sinhalese kasi. – That is, cash meaning money influenced a more specific cash meaning certain kinds of Asian money, if I understand correctly. Oct 31, 2013 at 13:15

4 Answers 4


OED shows various citations for cash as "coin, money" between 1590 and 1600.

1593 G. Peele Famous Chron. King Edward the First sig. H, Now the Frier is out of cash fiue Nobles, God knowes how he shall come into cash againe.
1596 T. Nashe Haue with you to Saffron-Walden sig. O2v, He put his hand in his pocket but..not to pluck out anie cash.
1600 Shakespeare Henry V ii. i. 110 Nim. I shall haue my noble? Pist. In cash most truly paid.

The East India Company was granted a Royal Charter in 1600, but three ships had sailed to India in 1591, presumably returning within twelve or eighteen months.

OED's first citations do not indicate the word was in use with this meaning prior to the ships' return.

  • The first two meanings in the OED are given separate etymologies. The second one cites the Tamil word as the origin. But the first one cites the French 'casse' as the origin of cash-box. I think this is either an error or a misprint. I'm sure the French word they are thinking of is 'caisse', which is variously used in French for cash-desk, as a prefix for a bank e.g Caisse d'Epagne (Savings bank) etc. I admit that I had always assumed that the French 'caisse' and our 'cash' came from the same root. But now it seems fairly evident that they don't.
    – WS2
    Oct 31, 2013 at 12:53
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    French casse is English chest, strongbox isn't it?
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 31, 2013 at 12:55
  • I'm not at home and hence do not have my French dictionary with me. But the verb 'casser' means to break, or smash. In the on-line dictionary I've located, all the derivations relate to breakage of some kind.
    – WS2
    Oct 31, 2013 at 13:11
  • We're not talking Modern French, necessarily. OED has "cash < French casse ‘a box, case, chest, to carrie or kepe wares in, also a Marchants cash or counter’ (Cotgrave)..."
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 31, 2013 at 13:14
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    I looked this up in a Harraps' French to English dictionary this evening. Clearly the spelling 'casse' is archaic and obsolete. One of the meanings under 'caisse', the fourth one listed, is 'cash'. Its main usage is for a locked box or chest, or for a cash desk such as in a hotel, or savings bank etc. Thus it would seem to me that the English etymology is clearly Tamil. But what has probably happened is that the French 'caisse' has acquired an additional meaning of 'cash' because of the English word. Having said that, I have never heard a French person use 'caisse' for 'cash'.
    – WS2
    Oct 31, 2013 at 21:57

I think OP's original instinct, that cash and caisse are cognate, was right. Casse or chasse (from L. capsa) appears to have been the usual French spelling (and, presumably, pronunciation) in the 14th C, and the word entered English at the same time. In both languages it had the general meaning “box, coffer”.

At the end of the 16th century it appears to have attained a European currency [sic!] in the additional narrower sense—derived, I suspect, from the merchant’s cash-box—of “cash-desk, till”. We find this in Florio's 1598 A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most Copious and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English:


And this in Randle Cotgrave's 1611 A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues:

enter image description here

In these definitions I take it that counter has OED 1’s Obs. meaning 3. “A table or desk for counting money, keeping accounts, etc.”. (OED 4. is clearly derivative, but not attested until 1688 “A banker’s or money-changer’s table; also, the table in a shop on which the money paid by purchasers is counted out, and across which goods are delivered.”)

Cotgrave, moreover, not only recognizes caisse as an alternative French spelling, he provides a French parallel to the English usage (Prov. I suppose to mean “Proverb” rather than “Provençal”):

enter image description here

(By the way—cashier in this sense is derived from Fr. casser “break, annul”, and refers to breaking up a company of troops, not to paying them off.)

Occam's Razor suggests that there is no need to look to derivation of cash from an Oriental term which according to OED 1 is attested for this period only in the Port. spelling Caixa—which was itself a falsely-friendly application of the Portuguese cognate of casse/cassa < capsa.

  • I am not sure what the conclusion is to the interesting material you present, above. Does this mean that the Tamil etymology is relevant or not?
    – WS2
    Nov 3, 2013 at 19:15
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    @WS2 I think it shows it to be irrelevant. 1) The English, French, Italian and Portuguese terms are all unambiguously cognate. 2) They shared a common money-box/money-table sense at the very time cash emerges in English. 3) The same pun is possible in English and French. 4) The Tamil term was introduced into Europe by borrowing but identified with the pre-existing Portuguese cognate due to its accidental phonological identity. I conclude that English cash is the local version and application of an international business term. Nov 3, 2013 at 20:03
  • Perhaps reinforced by the Tamil term? I've lived in France and I've never heard anyone use 'caisse' to mean cash. They speak of 'argent liquide', and of 'espèces'. It is interesting that English is the only European language of those under consideration above, which clearly calls its note and coin 'cash', sounding like the Tamil.
    – WS2
    Nov 3, 2013 at 20:33
  • @WS2 Modern Portuguese dictionaries tell me orçamento de caixa is "cash budget" and fluxo de caixa is "cash flow"; of course that may be under English influence. ... You may be right about reinforcement from Tamil. But when I find that "cash" used of values in nobles and pounds in the 1590s and hundreds of thousands of pounds by 1624; and then consider that the Indian coin was according to a source in Hobson-Jobson 1/733 of a noble, I suspect the influence went the other way, as H-J and OED state See Brad Szonye's Comment to OP. Cash meant, not small change, but ready money. Nov 3, 2013 at 23:04
  • Clearly the OED have at some point been convinced that the Tamil word played an important part, as they name it as the etymology of the principal meaning of 'cash'.
    – WS2
    Nov 4, 2013 at 9:04

CASH , "Etymology The English word cash is ultimately rooted in the Old Persian karsha meaning “a unit of value equivalent to one cash coin” and was first employed during the reign of Cyrus II followed by the establishment of the “formal” banking system and around the same time of the establishment of the credit and checking unions during the reign of Darius I who also minted the first face-coins.This form along with this meaning entered into the Sanskrit language during the post-Vedic era and also entered into Latin giving forms such as capsa “money box” (cf. OPers. Kshatrapavan = Satrap “an ancient Persian commercial and state confinement”) and case eventually passing into Middle French as caisse meaning “money in hand, coin...." source wikipedia : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cash

  • Very useful post. Interesting that English cash and French caisse are both rooted in the Persian kassa. And it seems the French came via Latin - presumably. But the really interesting thing would be to know how it got into English. Was it from the Normans? That seems unlikely -see @Andrew Leach's answer. But you have added some very helpful further material on this, albeit with Wikipedia's help.
    – WS2
    Mar 23, 2016 at 8:00

I'm a couple of years late here but I've always assumed CASH was derived thusly: CAISSE was and is the French word for a teller-window, a case or frame within which the bank employee would sit and transact money exchanges while the customer stood before it. Think of any old movie where a bank featured this elaborate wooden structure with metal bars. That employee was called the CAISSIER. Borrowed into English, he became CASHIER. And what would a CASHIER handle? CASH. I don't have authority for this explanation but it makes sense to me.

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