Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cross or Pile?

In an obscure academic paper titled “Bonus Scarabaeus—an Early Christian (?) Magical Gem from Pannonia” (Brigitte discovers the strangest things)—I came across images of a magical coin with its two sides designated as “avers” and “revers.” The missing e’s may have to do with the translator, but, in any case, I got to wondering. Were sides of coins once called by these names? The answer seems to be No. The sides of coins are folk designations. But sticking with avers for a moment longer, that word is Old French derived from the Latin adversus, which had the meaning both of turned away (against), and turned toward (confronting), thus face-to-face, hence “heads.”

Wikipedia informs me that the Romans’ heads or tails was navia aut caput, thus ship or head; the head, of course, was the emperor’s. The Germans say Kopf oder Zahl, head or number, Hungarians say fej vagy irás, head or writing, the Spanish say cara ou cruz, face or cross, the French say pile ou face, pile or face (but more about “pile” in a moment). The English once used cross or pile—so there is that “pile” again.

The pile in this context is not a “mound” or an “accumulation” but, rather, a pillar, the pier of a bridge. In France the reverse of coins was often a bridge. A pile also means a javelin, thus a stout rod with a sharpened tip; in German the word Pfeil means both an arrow and an architectural pillar. The English pylon (from the Greek for “gate”) is not seemingly related—although great gates often have pillars.

Avers and revers had me instantly remembering the Superbowl. At the Superbowl the “visiting” captain calls the toss; in the last one that would have been Tom Brady. I was imagining Brady calling the toss by saying “Avers” or “Ship” or “Pile.” Ahhh. The sorts of thoughts that fill a snowy morning… That morning, thanks to the Cross, has now turned sunny.

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