The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 21, Number 29, July 22, 2018, Article 20


Dick Johnson submitted these entries from his Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Terminology. Thanks. -Editor

Parts of a coin
Image from .

A key to understanding the difference between legend and inscription – often confused in the numismatic field – is, in a word, location. Another term, motto, is lettering also appearing on numismatic items which is neither but can be found in either location. Here are all three encyclopedic entries to aid further understanding

Legend. The lettering following the contour, circumference or outer shape of a coin or medal; the wording near the edge, most often in a form of an arc just inside the border. Lettering in such an arc is called BOWED (the letters have a bowed BASE LINE). The legend differs from INSCRIPTION (virtually all other lettering on a numismatic or medallic piece, on a straight base line, most often horizontal); it also differs from the EXERGUE (lettering in the area below a line across the bottom of the device). Legends on coins and medals reinforce the theme and concept of their design and occasionally are like the wider meaning of the word legend: repeating a statement from a previous generation. In England legends are called circumscriptions.

The wording in a legend is often contracted or abbreviated to get the required statement into a small space. Also legends are often in a language different from the country issued – as Latin – to further add to their obscurity. Translating legends, however, is a vital function of numismatic study and legends are often indexed in numismatic literature.

Legends are always in capitol letters. Ocassionaly the words in a legtond are separated by a CENTER DOT. This is at the option of the item’s designer, there are no rules regarding these. In modern times the use of center dots is for artistic effect. When cataloging, including the center dots is part of a legend’s description.

A legend containing errors of any kind (misspelled words or titles, errors of dates or figures, or mis-struck letters) is called BLUNDERED LEGEND. Legends normally run clockwise, or left to right, however Arabic and other languages read right to left. Legend is also the lettering on a coat of arms or heraldic shield in any position. The legend may also be a MOTTO, somewhat of a slogan, if it appears next to the border.

Multiple line legends. The legend is usually only one row of lettering along the rim, adjacent to the border or border elements. However, the legend may be more than one line. Such a DOUBLE LEGEND was used as early as 1250 on French coins.

Three or more lines of legend are rare, but do exist. An extreme case is a six-line MULTIPLE LEGEND on the Barcelona Columns of Julia Augusta Medal of 1970, issued by Calico in Spain. The legend has a list of countries throughout the world with cities named Barcelona. A spiral legend is a circular legend that runs in an ever decreasing pathway inside previous lettering, a VOLUTE, often to the very center of the design.

Early legend technique. Hill and Pollard in Medals of the Renaissance tell of early portrait medals modeled on a disk and the legend modeled on a separate ring that fits closely around the disk. Examples are found with the lettering in different positions in relation to the portrait, so the ring was kept separate, and rotated to different positions between castings. This method was employed in the 15th century by Amadeo da Milano, a jeweler turned medallist, by Enzola and others. See BORDER.
CLASS 02.10

N19 {1993} Mackay, p 51-77.
O10 {1920} Hill.

Inscription. The lettering on a coin or medal usually appearing horizontally across the field, or upon a figure or device, but in the broadest sense lettering in any position on a numismatic item. It differs from LEGEND which is lettering following the circular contour of the round coin or medal; and EXERGUE, the lettering in this area below the BASE LINE. Also VERTI CAL INSCRIPTION exists – lettering which appears vertical to the base line – (or even a wavy inscription with an UNDULATING BASE LINE). The study of inscriptions on numismatic items is a branch of epigraphy; the lettering on coins and medals is of vital importance, just as is lettering on monuments, temples and buildings is valuable documentation to historians.

Inscription Content. Inscriptions are dramatically related to the space available in a coin or medal’s design. They are abbreviated, or shortened, to fit a tight space –as for most coins – or occasionally expanded for larger medals (words added or lettering made larger). Inscriptions often contain numbers, as dates (either Arabic or Roman), a monarch’s number (most often Arabic). Dates of coronation, inauguration, FOUNDING DATES, or completion date of some public project, all are found as inscriptions. (See DATES AND DATING.)

Often the text of an inscription is composed of MOTTOS, or QUOTES, as from the Bible, Shakespeare, or prominent authors or poets. (Parts of poems are sometimes inscriptions, in fact the German language has a word for a rhyming inscription on a coin or medal, seligkeitsthaler.)

Inscription characteristics. For the most part inscriptions identify the person or event portrayed in the design and reinforces this by title, date or both. Inscriptions are not captions, like the description of the picture portrayed, but rather they are an integral part of the total design. Inscriptions reveal in words the essence or concept of the piece, what the device reveals in design.

The lettering of inscriptions on coins and medals is almost always in caps, from the tradition of Greek and Roman inscriptions. The shape or typeface of the lettering is, or should be, in harmony with the style of the device. See LETTGERING.

For nearly 2,000 years lettering was formed on coins and medals – at least those that are struck – by punches. A die would be engraved with the device and the lettering would be punched in afterwards to complete the die. See PUNCHES, PUNCHEONS. (Since 1900 most dies are made from patterns in which both device and lettering, all raised and sunken relief are in the pattern and replicated into the die.)

Varieties in inscriptions. More variations are found in lettering than in devices and other pictorial elements in coin and medal designs. Separate letters, particularly with punches, present more opportunity for an errant letter to be used. Errors of spelling are called BLUNDERED INSCRIPTIONS. These are often corrected causing two DIE VARIETIES of the piece.

Dates in inscriptions are sometimes corrected – or UPDATED – and titles are infrequently changed for the monarch or person portrayed. In numismatics, examination of inscriptions is very important for identifying varieties.

Cataloging inscriptions. Every letter, punctuation and STOP (typographical ornament) should be recorded when cataloging inscriptions. Record exactly every letter and digit; if the numismatic item bears IIII do not record IV. Follow foreign language exactly. Identify any errors in either spelling or letter defects, as upside down PUNCH, for example. (Broken serifs on punches are even cataloged but only for identifying minor die varieties.)

A most important rule: Identify the language of the inscription and translate it into the language of the main text.

Inscriptions sometimes appear on coats of arms, shields, or other objects in the design. These should be identified in the description (but are usually not indexed).

Indexing inscriptions. When indexing inscriptions, alphabetize by first words; omit the articles “a” and “the” at the beginning only (record all letters but include all articles afterwards); disregard spaces between words and all numbers (both Arabic and Roman). Indexing by computer will include the spaces, so some adjustment may be necessary after the computer sorts inscriptions alphabetically.

Foreign language inscriptions are indexed exactly as they appear on the numismatic item. Long inscriptions (as a TYPOGRAPHIC reverse) may be indexed by first words but may be shortened to the first line or two (then adding an ellipse, “...”). This eliminates the need to record the entire lengthy inscription in the index.

Some European numismatic catalogs index all the cataloged items by their inscriptions – so important is it considered in European numismatic and medallic art. For some reason such an index seems less important to Americans.
CLASS 02.10

NE42 {1982} Doty, p 125 (epigraphy), 178-179 (inscription).
NC8 {1988} Breen, p 5-7 (Colonial inscriptions).
N19 {1993} Mackay, p 51-77.

I've always thought that coins, tokens and medals must be cataloged with their entire inscriptions spelled out. Why? Because when faced with an unknown item, the inscription is the easiest place to start. If someone has compiled an index of inscriptions, it's easy to look up the piece by first looking up the words in the inscription.

Compiling an index is a laborious effort when done by hand, but computers can easily handle this chore today - that's what Google is, basically. Type the words of an inscription into a search engine and you just might find an instant match.

But remember, while computers are getting better and smarter all the time, they don't read inscriptions directly from coin images - they can only index the text provided for them. So whenever cataloging numismatic items, especially online, PLEASE include the complete inscriptions. -Editor

Motto. A slogan appearing as a legend or inscription on a numismatic item. Current American mottoes: E Pluribus Unum, Liberty, In God We Trust. Not all lettering is a motto; it is a saying that must be: (1) extremely brief (not a lot of room on a coin or medal), (2) be a positive statement of some general truth and public acceptance, (3) often of moral or ideal guiding principle. Occasionally it is abbreviated because of the very limited space available for the lettering. Occasionally it is in a language other than that of the remainder of the item. Mottoes may appear as legend near the edge or as inscription elsewhere and may be traced back to political slogans on late Roman coins.

Mottoes are often found on ribbons, BANDEROLES or COATS OF ARMS, they often have some heraldic connection. Like all lettering, mottoes are sometimes indexed for reference. In cataloging they should be recorded (and if in another language, they must be translated). Compare IMPRESA used in the renaissance.
CLASS 02.10

L6 {1983} Pine.
NC9 {1988} Breen, p 5-7 (Colonial inscriptions).

Book lovers should be word lovers as well.

Looking for the meaning of a numismatic word, or the description of a term?  Try the Newman Numismatic Portal's Numismatic Dictionary at:

Or if you would like a printed copy of the complete Encyclopedia, it is available. There are 1,854 terms, on 678 pages, in The Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology. Even running two a week would require more than 19 years to publish them all. If you would like an advance draft of this vital reference work it may be obtained from the author for your check of $50 sent postpaid. Dick Johnson, 139 Thompson Drive, Torrington, CT 06790.

Wayne Homren, Editor

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