On Page 41, book 1 of the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith writes:
(Second volume of The Glasgow Edition of the works and Correspondence of Adam Smith)

[...] Abraham weighs to Ephron the four hundred shekels of silver which he had agreed to pay for the field of Machpelah. They are said, however, to be the current money of the merchant, and yet are received by weight and not by tale, in the same manner as ingots of gold and bars of silver are at present. The revenues of the ancient Saxon kings of England are said to have been paid, not in money but in kind, that is, in victuals and provisions of all sorts. William the Conqueror introduced the custom of paying them in money. This money, however, was, for a long time, received at the exchequer, by weight and not by tale. [bold styling added by me]

I take it that the context is to appraise the value of the money being received, i.e. "by weight (of the precious metal) and not by tale".
So then what does it mean to appraise the value of some quantity of money by tale?

  • 2
    Archaic spelling of Tally
    – Ben
    Apr 22, 2016 at 11:10
  • 1
    Tale/Tally/Tail would be perfectly understood by any of Adam Smith's readers whose education included the dirty jokes in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales... Apr 22, 2016 at 20:28
  • Will see you later when you read Ricardo's.
    – Braiam
    Apr 23, 2016 at 1:46

4 Answers 4


I think it refers to the archaic meaning of tale:

  • enumeration; count.


  • Money were accepted by weight (he probably refers to coins of gold and silver, not paper money ) in the same manner as ingots of gold and silver are at present.

The old meaning that refers to enumeration was probably the original one in Germanic:


  • Old English talu "series, calculation," also "story,....."to recount, count." The secondary Modern English sense of "number, numerical reckoning" (c. 1200) probably was the primary one in Germanic;

  • The ground sense of the Modern English word in its main meaning, then, might have been "an account of things in their due order."


  • Ah yes, that's what I suspected. In that period [william the conquerer circa 1066] the units of currency (arbitrarily assigned by some public authority [e.g. shilling, dollar cent etc]) weren't firmly established so enumeration; count i.e. "3 shillings" makes sense. thanks Apr 22, 2016 at 9:56
  • Perhaps "tale" = "tally"?
    – mHurley
    Apr 22, 2016 at 13:32
  • 3
    @mHurley - "tally" has a similar meaning but a different origin. etymonline.com/index.php?term=tally
    – user66974
    Apr 22, 2016 at 13:35
  • Used in Swedish as tal, meaning number.
    – pipe
    Apr 22, 2016 at 19:21
  • You do see the word "tare" on some scales, which usually just means to zero out the scale.
    – alexw
    Apr 23, 2016 at 5:08

As indicated by @Josh61, "tale" means "count".

There were many different coins, each one having different designs, weights, inscriptions, and the purity of the metals (gold, silver, copper) varied greatly. The value of a coin primarily depended on its weight and composition.

Even if the weight and composition of each coin was standardized, Antique coins were subject to clipping and the most effective way to combat clipping was to have coins weighted rather than counted in transactions.

  • Yes thats an accurate description of the intrinsic value of a coin. But thats quite independent of the denomination ascribed to it by the state. e.g. the state simply "decides" coin of substance a and purity level x is "worth" 1 guilder or 3 shillings or 10 cents etc. for that reason josh61's answer makes sense to me. Apr 22, 2016 at 10:34
  • @the_velour_fog - Until the Middle Ages, coins had no face value and the conversion rates were based on their metal composition. Fully agreeing on Josh answer, I provided a supporting explanation.
    – Graffito
    Apr 22, 2016 at 10:49
  • Sure, and so once the face values were ascribed to stamped coins, e.g. shillings, pound, guinea etc - the denominations initially representing the metal composition and amount, but which were repeatedly inflated by state - it seems to me that "by tale" is referring to these face value denominations, rather that the intrinsic value of the precious metal. Apr 22, 2016 at 11:02
  • @the_velour_fog it doesn't make any difference whether the value is set by the state, or based on the intrinsic value of the metal. If a forger "clips" 10% of the metal from ten coins and uses that metal to make one forged coin, he makes the same amount of profit measured in money, whichever way the coins are valued.
    – alephzero
    Apr 22, 2016 at 18:58

A relatively recent use of the word 'tale' in the sense being used here appears in Amanda Bailey, ‘Timon of Athens, Forms of Payback, and the Genre of Debt’. English literary renaissance, 2011, Vol.41 (2), p.375-400, p. 377. I quote it at length since it seems to encompass much of the discussion in this thread.

In this respect, Shakespeare and Middleton’s play [Timon] concurs with early modern economic manuals that acknowledge it is “not so much what money is worth in it selfe, as how it is valued by publike auctoritie, custome, and estimation . . . or common use therof.” Custom and estimation varied wildly, as coinage was valued in specie not in tale, meaning that the worth of a coin was determined by the precious metal from which it was composed rather than by royal fiat.

As I understand it, because the value of currency was not yet firmly established at that time (late C16/early C17) by fiat, counting (tale) the number of coins was not necessary - it was the weight of the coin which had priority, as if gold and silver coins (specie) had intrinsic worth, which could be assessed by how much they weighed.


I am wondering whether there is a spelling issue. There is a common Asian weight known as the "tael". Perhaps that is the intended meaning here.

Joel A. Adler

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