Terminology: Currency vs Money

Trying to explain what complementary currencies “really” are, leads to different answers depending on who askes and who answers. Even getting the basics laid out, like “what is money?” and “what is a currency?” seems to produce conflicting answers by different prominent actors in this young discipline. Without drilling into other troublesome discourses of terminology that many natural allies often get into heated debates about, e.g. the delimitation of “complementary currency” vs “community currency” vs “alternative” and “parallel currency”, I just want to point to one particular and basic rift I see at the moment, stemming from two different views  of “currency” and “money”.
There are two ways to put the terms money and currency in relation to each other.

1) Money can be seen as a form of currency or 2) currency can be seen as a form of money (using the two synonymously is of course a third theoretic possibility, but limited in consecutive differentiations.)

In general, the more generic term – that of which the other term is just a subset of –  always needs to incorporate all the traditional forms of exchange and accounting media (coins, bills, shells, tally sticks, electronic credit etc.) plus all other possible forms of “unit systems that facilitate collaboration in a community” (this definition being my most generic description of the social technology* that we are concerned with here).

The more specific term on the other hand is mostly employed for what we are used to have in our wallets and bank accounts. This way, the more generic term opens the possibilities of innovation, awareness raising and different social dynamics.

Now, the predominant feature of €, $, £ etc is that these units carry a value (tangible, real, socially constructed,  virtual or of whatever other form is yet another question), and this value can be allocated and transferred. In plain words, you have e.g. a coin which you can hand to me and when you do, it becomes mine and its value counts exclusively for me.

As long as we only deal with (and know of) $, €, £ etc. the whole issue of money vs currency seems trivial. Money is the general idea, currencies are the different implementations of that same idea in different nation states.

But when expanding the scope of inquiry to the vast field of new forms of money or currencies, from “regional currencies” to “time-dollars” to “loyalty points” to “reputation currencies”, the ideological lineages and practical differences and functions** ask for certain distinctions in terminology accordingly.

This is where the mixed uses of the words currency and money become troublesome.

Some people, when using the word “currency” (stemming from the latin verb currere for running/travelling) seem to be looking at the units (or the tokens of value or medium of exchange) that go from one actor to another. This ties the word closely to how we commonly experience €, $ and £. And conversely this understanding leaves “money” to be the generic term for all other social technologies that complement our commonplace “currencies”.

Others however rather regard “currency” not as what is going on (in the economy) or what is going around (from wallet to wallet), but as a way to see, denominate and understand that what´s going on . In this sense $, € and £ are just one possible way of describing what is happening in the economy and, since we are used to call this way “money”, this becomes the particular term to describe this common way of (ac)counting. Money than is a particular currency. And the possibilities for what can be described as a currency, in this sense, are as vast and divers as the facets of possible perspectives on the economy i all its forms and effects.

The differences in the use of these terms seems to occur on the two sides of a fuzzy line in the middle of the atlantic ocean. The latter view being more present in America, the former in Europa. And than there are similar or different problems when moving away from English, of course. Personally, I prefer “currency” to be the broader term, because the word sounds a little more abstract to most people and hence it can be more easily expended (or charged) with more and new meaning(s). The term “money”, on the other hand, already has too many practical and emotional tags and associations in every day use.

The Metacurrency Project presents and shaped this latter (and my own) understanding of currency as “current-see” (their latest diction) in the most rigorous and best articulated way. This terminology serves as the basis to this consecutive attempt to understand the: “unique value proposition of complementary currencies”.


* this article of mine, published in German, gives a longer derivative elaboration of the description of currencies (in the sense outlined at the end of this article) as a social technology

** distinctions can also be mapped along the traditional functions assigned to money: unit of account, medium of exchange, store of value. A future article will outline a ontological attempt on how complementary currencies “make a difference” between these

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  1. Helpful, I’ll refer people to this when I am in debate about which word means which!