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sterling, n.1 and adj.

Forms:  α. ME–15 sterlinge, sterlynge, ME sterlyngge, ME–15 starlinge, starlyng(e, ME, 15–17 starling, ME–15 sterlyng, 16 sterlin, 17 sterline, ME– sterling. β. Sc.ME strivilin, 15 stirveling, stirviling, striveling, striviling, strivling, 15–16 stirling, 16 stirlin, stirvlin.(Show Less)
Frequency (in current use): 
Etymology: Early Middle English sterling  , whence Old French esterlin  , medieval Latin esterlingus  , sterlingus  , sterlinus  , Middle High German sterlinc  , Italian sterlino  . Of uncertain origin, but probably a late Old English formation in -ling suffix1.
The earliest known example (in the French form esterlin  ) is believed to occur in a charter of the Norman abbey of Préaux (Round Cal. Documents, France, p. 111). The date is supposed to be either 1085 or 1104, on the evidence of the golden number, but so far as this is concerned it might be later by 19 years or a multiple of 19; the cartulary is of the 13th cent. Ordericus Vitalis (a1145) has in Latin librae sterilensium  , and librae sterilensis monetæ  , as if he took the word for an -ing   derivative of a place-name. The Anglo-Latin sterlingus   is cited by Ducange from the year 1180. Continental examples are frequent in the 13th cent., the excellence of the English penny having procured for it extensive currency in foreign countries; in Oct. 1202, Baldwin Count of Flanders contracts to pay to certain Venetian nobles ‘the sum of 121 ounces in marks sterling (marcas sterlinorum) at the rate of 13 “solidi” and 4 “denarii” for each silver mark’ (Rawdon Brown, Cal. State Papers, Venice I. 1).
The word, if of English origin, presumably was descriptive of some peculiar characteristic of the new Norman penny. The most plausible explanation is that it represents a late Old English *steorling  , ‘coin with a star’ ( < steorra   star), some of the early Norman pennies having on them a small star. An old conjecture is that the word is derived < stær   a starling (stare n.1), and alludes to the four birds (usually called ‘martlets’) on some coins of Edward the Confessor; but if this were so the early form would normally have been starling  . Until recently, the prevailing view was that the word was a shortening of Easterling n.   Walter de Pinchebek (c1300) gives this explanation, saying that the coin was originally made by Easterling moneyers; but the stressed first syllable would not have been dropped.
In Scotland the word was confused with the name of the town of Stirling, anciently Strivelin; hence the β forms common in the 15th and 16th centuries.
 A. n.1

 a. The English silver penny of the Norman and subsequent dynasties. Often in pound of sterlings, originally a pound weight of silver pennies, afterwards a name for the English pound (240 pence) as a money of account. Also in mark, shilling, etc. of sterlings . Obs. exc. Hist.

1297   R. Gloucester's Chron. (Rolls) 5949   He ȝef hem atten ende Four þousend pound of sterlynges.
1297   R. Gloucester's Chron. (Rolls) 11840   Þe king..eche ȝer him sende A certein summe of sterlings to is liues ende.
c1300   Fleta (1647) ii. xii. 72   Per denar' Angliæ qui sterling' appellatur, et fit rotundus, qui debet ponderare triginta duo grana frumenti mediocria.
a1330   Syr Degarre 297   The ten pound of starlings Were i-spended in his fostrings.
1377   Langland Piers Plowman B. xv. 342   As in lussheborwes is a lyther alay and ȝet loketh he lyke a sterlynge.
c1386   Chaucer Pardoner's Tale 579   Myn hooly pardon may yow alle warice So þat ye offre nobles, or sterlynges, Or elles siluer broches [etc.].
1387   J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (Rolls) VIII. 167   Þ e kyng..ȝaf hym an hondred schillynges of sterlynges.
1418   in F. J. Furnivall Fifty Earliest Eng. Wills (1882) 32,   I bequethe to Ionet my wyfe..xl. li of Sterlinges.
1423   Rolls of Parl. IV. 256/2   Silver..beyng as gode of alay as the sterlyng.
a1500   Brome Bk. (1886) 149,   xx s. of starlynges.
1598   J. Stow Suruay of London 42   Paide in starlings, which were pence, so called.
1854   C. M. Yonge Cameos xxvi, in Monthly Packet Jan. 19   Your words smell of English sterlings.
1861   Numism. Chron. I. 56   English and Foreign Sterlings found in Scotland.

1297—1861(Hide quotations)


 b. Sc. Applied to the Scottish penny.This use is sometimes erroneously said to go back to the 12th c., on the ground of its occurrence in the so-called ‘Assize of David I’, which is a compilation of later date.

1387   in J. D. Marwick Charters Edinb. (1871) 36,   vic mark of sterlyngis of the payment of Scotlande.
?a1600   tr. Assisa de Mensuris in Sc. Acts (1844) I. 674   King David ordanyt at þe sterlyng [L. (? 15th c.) sterlingus] suld wey xxxij cornys of gude and round quhete.
1609   J. Skene tr. Stat. Robert II in Regiam Majestatem 56 b,   The stirlin in the time of..king David, did wey threttie twa graines of gude and round quheat: Bot now it is otherwaies, be reason of the minoration of the money.
1884   Encycl. Brit. XVII. 656/2   The oldest pieces are silver pennies or sterlings, resembling the contemporary English money, of the beginning of the 12th century.

1387—1884(Hide quotations)


c. With ellipsis of of, in pound sterlings, mark, etc. sterlings . Obs.Chiefly with the plurals pounds, marks, etc., and hence in later use prob. apprehended as an adj. with plural inflection.

1433   in F. J. Furnivall Fifty Earliest Eng. Wills (1882) 95   Y bequethe to litill Watkyn, my Godsone..x markes sterlynges.
1464   Rolls of Parl. V. 530/1   An annuall rent of xl li. Sterlinges.
1480   Table Prouffytable Lernynge (Caxton) (1964) 48   A pound sterlings.
1486   in H. Littlehales Medieval Rec. London City Church (1905) ii,   vj marc sterlynges.
1528   in I. S. Leadam Select Cases Star Chamber (1911) II. 20   As moche wood as ys woorth iiij powndes sterlynges.
1542   N. Udall tr. Erasmus Apophthegmes f. 248v,   The thousande pieces wer muche about the summe of twentie nobles sterlynges.

1433—1542(Hide quotations)

1474   Stat. Winch. in Cov. Leet Bk. 396,   xxxij graynes of whete take out of the mydens of the Ere makith a sterling oþer-wyse called a peny; & xx sterling maketh an Ounce.
1496–7   Act 12 Hen. VII c. 5   Every unce [shall] conteyn xx sterlinges, and every sterling be of the weight of xxxij cornes of whete that growe in the myddes of the Eare of the whete.
1611   R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues at Carat,   For eight of them [carrats] make but one sterlin, and a sterlin is the 24 part of an ounce.
1776   J. Entick Hist. London I. 160   A penny, weighing two sterlings.

1474—1776(Hide quotations)


b.   sterling weight   n. Obs. = pennyweight n.In the Table ‘sterling weight’ is stated in pounds, shillings, and pence; the lb. avoirdupois = 1lb. 2oz. 10dwt. troy, £1. 1s. 2d. sterling.

1612   W. Colson Gen. Treasury H h ij,   A Table to finde Auerdupois weight reduced to Troy weight, and sterling weight.

1612—1612(Hide quotations)


 3. Money of the quality of the sterling or standard silver penny; genuine English money. †In the 17th c. occas. used rhetorically for: Money.

1565   T. Cooper Thesaurus   Centussis..A rate of Romaine money conteynyng..10. Denarios, that is .x. grotes of olde sterlynge, when .viii. grotes went to an ownce.
a1592   R. Greene Mamillia (1593) ii. sig. L 2,   It is..so hard to descrie the true sterling from the counterfeit coyne.
1602   T. Dekker Satiro-mastix sig. D2,   Drop the ten shillings into this Bason... So, ist right Iacke? ist sterling?
1605   A. Warren Poore Mans Passions E 3,   Whose coffers with Commodities abound So full, that they no sterling more may hold.
a1635   T. Randolph Poems (1640) 113   Hexameter's no sterling, and I feare What the brain coines goes scarce for currant there.
1699   S. Garth Dispensary ii. 18   By useful Observations he can tell The sacred Charms that in true Sterling dwell. How Gold maks [sic] a Patrician of a Slave [etc.].
1707   J. Norris Pract. Treat. Humility vii. 320   To see a rich man that has nothing else to recommend him..but pure naked sterling, to grow proud and haughty upon a full purse..nothing can be more ridiculous.
1584   R. Greene Myrrour of Modestie sig. Biiiv,   And seing we haue you here alone, your stearne lookes shall stande for no sterling.
1584   R. Greene Morando sig. Biv,   Your censure is no sentence, neither can this broken coine stande for sterlyng.
1604   Shakespeare Hamlet i. iii. 107   You haue tane these tenders for true pay Which are not sterling.

1565—1707(Hide quotations)


 a. English money as distinguished from foreign money. Formerly often in contrast to currency, i.e. the depreciated pounds, shillings, and pence of certain colonies.

1601   in T. Stafford Pacata Hibernia (1633) ii. iv. 157   Monies of this new Standard of Ireland..being brought back againe to the Exchange to be converted in sterling.
1724   Swift Let. to Shop-keepers of Ireland (new ed.) 9   The Tenants are obliged by their Leases to pay Sterling which is Lawful Current Money of England.
1834   J. D. Lang Hist. Acct. New S. Wales (1837) I. 206   The debts of the small settlers had all been contracted in sterling, and the price they received for their wheat..was in currency.
1890   Daily News 2 July 3/6   The lay treasurer of the society, who said that for a long time he had been opposed to the payments in India being made in sterling.
1892   Daily News 19 Dec. 3/3   The effort has been made here to draw bills on America with the notion of selling at once for sterling, and using depreciated currency to pay the bills when due.
1900   Westm. Gaz. 8 Nov. 5/2   Sterling rose as promptly as it fell during last week's chaotic Money market. (New York.)

1601—1900(Hide quotations)


 b. fig. in Australian use. (See quots.)

1827   P. Cunningham Two Years New S. Wales II. xxi. 53   Our colonial-born brethren are best known here by the name of Currency, in contradistinction to Sterling or those born in the mother-country.
1834   J. D. Lang Hist. Acct. New S. Wales (1837) I. 220   Contests..between the colonial youth and natives of England, or, to use the phrase of the colony, between currency and sterling.
1892   K. Lentzner Austral. Word-bk. 19   Currency, persons born in Australia, natives of England being termed ‘sterling’.

1827—1892(Hide quotations)


 c. attrib. with the sense: Related to or payable in sterling.   sterling area n. the group of countries (chiefly of the British Commonwealth, from 1947 officially known as scheduled territories: see scheduled territory n. at scheduled adj. Special uses) that from 1931 to 1972 pegged their exchange rates to sterling, or kept their reserves in sterling and not in gold or dollars, and transferred money freely amongst themselves; also sterling bloc(k) , sterling group.  sterling balances n. deposits in sterling which are held in British banks by overseas creditors (see also quot. 1948).

1894   H. Bell Railway Policy India 81   A new contract..granting a sterling guarantee of 3½ per cent on the capital expended.
1894   H. Bell Railway Policy India 244   The sterling interest charges now payable on Indian railways..are equivalent to a payment of interest of over 7·6 per cent..if converted into rupees at par.
1898   W. J. Greenwood Commerc. Corresp. (ed. 2) 108   This sterling invoice was sent to Hamburg.
1903   Pitman's Business Man's Guide 409   Sterling Bonds, the bonds of certain American railroad companies which have been issued in the United Kingdom and are payable in English currency, and not in that of the United States.
1912   Times 19 Dec. 16/3   Sterling exchange was irregular.
1932   B. Blackett in Times 23 Jan. 12/4   What I have called the sterling area is sufficiently large and diversified to enable it to be to a very large extent self-contained.
1935   Economist 5 Jan. 1/2   The devaluation of the dollar and of the currencies of the sterling group..means that the currency value of the world's existing gold supply has immensely increased.
1935   Economist 26 Jan. 216/2   They might reasonably hope for a moderate increase in trade during the coming year, particularly, between countries within the ‘sterling bloc’.
1937   A. Huxley Ends & Means v. 41   This has already been done in the case of the Sterling Bloc, which is composed of countries whose rulers have decided that it is worth while to co-ordinate their separate national plans so that they shall not interfere with one another.
1948   G. Crowther Outl. Money (ed. 2) v. 170   Overseas countries, especially those of the Commonwealth, were content during the war to sell more to Britain than they bought from her, and to take bank deposits in London..in payment of the difference. These were the famous ‘sterling balances’.
1949   A. Koestler Promise & Fulfilm. xv. 166   On February 22, 1948, Palestine was at short notice expulsed from the Sterling Block.
1956   R. S. Sayers Financial Policy viii. 235   The Sterling Area became a legal entity, an area inside which payment in sterling was unrestricted.
1977   Time 24 Jan. 14/1   In the past three decades, few remnants of that empire have bedeviled the British more than the ‘sterling balances’—deposits from governments and private parties abroad that are kept in British banks and government bonds.
1979   H. Wilson Final Term 3   The Sterling Area was dismantled at a stroke.

1894—1979(Hide quotations)


5. Standard degree of fineness. Obs.The sense was prob. evolved from traditional expressions like ‘as good as the sterling’ (see quot. 1423 at sense A. 1a).

1696–7   Act 8 & 9 Will. III c. 8 §8   Plate of finer Siluer then the Sterling or Standard ordained for the Moneys of this Realme.
1724   Swift Let. to Mr. Harding 6   Gold and Silver of the Right Sterling and Standard.

1696–7—1724(Hide quotations)

 B. adj. (Formerly often abbreviated ster., sterl.)

 1. In pound etc. sterling , altered from the older pound etc. (of) sterlings (see A. 1, A. 1b), and originally used in the same sense. Hence, in later use, appended to the statement of a sum of money, to indicate that English money is meant.

1444   Rolls of Parl. V. 115/1   That the Seneschall..and other Officers..forfete M. marks sterlyng.
1523   Act 14 & 15 Hen. VIII c. 12 §1   They shall stryke..as many halfe grotes..as shall amount to the somme of .xx. li. sterlyng.
1535   G. Joye Apol. Tindale 22,   iiij pense halpeny starling.
1665   J. Lamont Diary (1830) 176   He was dew..of excyse,..ane thowsande lib. sterl.
1673   W. Temple Observ. United Provinces ii. 86   Above Sixteen hundred thousand pounds Sterling a year.
1689   in Acts Parl. Scotl. (1875) XII. 60/1   Þat they retaine 25 lib. starling of the excyse.
1713   J. Watson in tr. J. de La Caille Hist. Art of Printing Pref. 16   For which he was to have a Salary of 100 lib. Sterl. per Annum.
1717   in Nairne Peerage Evid. (1874) 31   Between seven and eight hundred pound sterline yearly.
1724   Swift Let. to Mr. Harding 12   England gets a Million Sterl. by this Nation.
1727   A. Hamilton New Acct. E. Indies I. xxi. 249   A Xerapheen is worth about sixteen Pence half Peny Ster.
1803   Gazetteer Scotl. Introd. p. xxii,   The shilling Scots is the 12th part of a shilling sterling, or one penny sterling; the pound Scots..is equal to one shilling and eightpence sterling.
1838   A. De Morgan Ess. Probabilities 18   Concerns which now employ many millions sterling.
1849   C. Lyell 2nd Visit U.S. II. 167   The value of the whole..amounting to 350,000 dollars, or 73,500l. sterling.
1856   R. W. Emerson Eng. Traits xiii. 225   The religion of England..believes in a Providence which does not treat with levity a pound sterling.
a1578   R. Lindsay Hist. & Cron. Scotl. (1899) I. 236   Ane hundreith thowsand pound stiruiling.
1589   Exch. Rolls Scot. XXII. 17   Fra the scheref of Selkirk, 6d. strivling..fra the scheref of Drumfreis, 3s. money, 1d. striviling.
1596   J. Dalrymple tr. J. Leslie Hist. Scotl. (1888) I. 333   He was redeimet with a ransoune of ane hunder libs stirling.
1596   J. Dalrymple tr. J. Leslie Hist. Scotl. (1895) II. 355   [He] suld pay xx shilling Stirueleng for his offence.
1611   J. Speed Hist. Great Brit. ix. xii. 582/2   His [sc. David II's] ransome was one hundreth thousand Markes striueling.
1613–18   S. Daniel Coll. Hist. Eng. in Wks. (Grosart) V. 261   The ransome of a hundreth thousand Markes stirulin.

1444—1856(Hide quotations)


 a. Prefixed as the distinctive epithet of lawful English money or coin. Now rare. †Also, in early Sc. use, of lawful Scots money.

c1400   Brut clxiii. 182   The Kyng [Edw. I] ordeynede þat þe sterlinge halfpeny and ferthinge shulde go þrouȝ-out his lande.
1480   Table Prouffytable Lernynge (Caxton) (1964) 16   Ryallis nobles of englond..Olde sterlingis pens.
1482   in H. E. Malden Cely Papers (1900) 100   The sowdeers hath leiver to be payd here at xxvj s viij d. than hawe in Yngland sterlyng money.
1561   T. Norton tr. J. Calvin Inst. Christian Relig. iv. xviii. f. 146 (margin) ,   The common price of a Masse in fraunce is .iii. Karolus..about the value of a sterling grote.
1565   T. Cooper Thesaurus at Census equestris, 400   Sestertia, of olde sterlyng money 2000 poundes.
1590   E. Webbe Rare & Wonderfull Things (new ed.) sig. C2v,   A penny loafe of English starling money, was worth a crowne of golde.
1600   Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 ii. i. 122   Pay her the debt..you may doe with sterling mony.
1634   H. Peacham Compl. Gentleman (1906) xii. 122   Libra or Pondo..was worth of sterlin money three pounds.
1651   J. Marius Advice Bills of Exchange 69   How to bring French Crownes into Starling Money.
1755   in Nairne Peerage Evid. (1874) 36   Eighteen pounds eighteen shillings ster1 money.
1816   Scott Antiquary I. i. 14   Three shillings of sterling money of this realm.
1837   T. Carlyle French Revol. I. iii. iii. 103   And, say, in sterling money, three hundred thousand a year.
1488   in Acts Lords of Council Civil Causes (1839) I. 98/2   Twa vnces of striuilin pennyis.
1535   W. Stewart tr. H. Boethius Bk. Cron. Scotl. III. 382   Fiftie thousand of stirling mony gude To pay in hand.
1588   Exch. Rolls Scot. XXI. 391   The comptar discharrgis him of striviling money..extending to 32d.
1609   J. Skene tr. Stat. David II in Regiam Majestatem 44   It is statute that the kings money, that is, stirlin money, sall not be caried furth of the Realme.

c1400—1837(Hide quotations)


 b. Phrase, to pass for (later as) sterling . Chiefly fig. Also, to allow, mark for sterling .

1641   Milton Animadversions 21   Setting aside the odde coinage of your phrase, which no mintmaister of language would allow for sterling.
1651   N. Culpeper Astrol. Judgm. Dis. (1658) 154   If the credit of Hippocrates may passe for starling, he protests that [etc.].
1725   D. Defoe Compl. Eng. Tradesman I. xviii. 301   What are they but washing over a brass shilling to make it pass for sterling?
1780   E. Burke Speech Bristol previous to Election 5   If our member's conduct can bear this touch, mark it for sterling.
1817   J. Mill Hist. Brit. India III. vi. i. 30   Such are the inconsistencies of a speech, which yet appears to have passed as sterling in the assembly to which it was addressed.

1641—1817(Hide quotations)


c. fig. That has course or currency. Obs.

a1568   R. Ascham Scholemaster (1570) ii. f. 35v,   This waie of exercise was..reiected iustlie by Crassus and Cicero: yet allowed and made sterling agayne by M. Quintilian.
1608   Shakespeare Richard II iv. i. 254   If my name be starling, yet in Englang Let it commaund a mirour hether strayte.

a1568—1608(Hide quotations)


 a. Of silver: †Having the same degree of purity as the penny. (obs.) Hence, in later use: Of standard quality. sterling mark, sterling stamp: the hallmark guaranteeing sterling quality.With the first quot. 1488-9   cf. quot. 1423 at sense A. 1a.

1488–9   Act 4 Hen. VII c. 2   All suche fyne silver..shall be..made soo fyne that it may bere xij. peny weyght of alaye in a pound wight, And yet it be as good as sterlynge and rather better than worse.
1551   J. Williams Acct. Monastic Treasures (1836) 86   In grotes stricken wt harpes, the some of ml ml li, converted and made..of ml dcxxv li sterlinge siluer.
1677   W. Badcock Touch-stone Gold & Silver Wares 35   If it [plate] be worse then Starling it will appear Yellowish.
1681   London Gaz. No. 1632/4   Five Silver-Hilted Swords, the Hilts of which are found upon the Tryal, more then one Shilling in every Ounce worse than the Sterling.
1684   Earl of Roscommon Ess. Translated Verse 310   Before the Radiant Sun, a Glimmering Lamp; Adult'rate Mettals to the Sterling Stamp, Appear not meaner, than mere humane Lines, Compar'd with those whose Inspiration shines.
1723   London Gaz. No. 6134/4   Silver..Shooe-Clasps, mark'd Old Sterling.
1743   N. Tindal tr. P. Rapin de Thoyras Hist. Eng. (ed. 3) II. xvii. 157   A pound of old Sterling Silver [was coined] into Half-Shillings, [etc.].
1776   A. Smith Inq. Wealth of Nations I. i. x. 151   The sterling mark upon plate, and the stamps upon..cloth, give the purchaser much greater security.

1488–9—1776(Hide quotations)


 b. In figurative context. (Passing into sense A. 4)

1689   J. Collier Moral Ess. conc. Pride 73   There is another Profession, which possibly does not glitter altogether so much upon the Sense, but for all that, if you touch it 'twill prove right Sterling.
1767   W. Harte Amaranth 35   True faith, like gold into the furnace cast, Maintains its sterling pureness to the last.
1785   W. Cowper Task vi. 990   What is base No polish can make sterling.
1785   W. Cowper Task v. 358   Were kingship as true treasure as it seems, Sterling, and worthy of a wise man's wish, I would not [etc.].

1689—1785(Hide quotations)


 c. absol. Sterling silver tableware.

1974   State (Columbia, S. Carolina) 3–4 Mar. g2/1   Sterling promises to grow both more valuable, and more beautiful, with time. Its luminous beauty..is destined to take on the soft, lustrous patina..prized by so many collectors of antique silver.
1977   ‘E. McBain’ Long Time no See iv. 48   The women cleaned house for other women, soaping fine china and polishing heavy sterling.

1974—1977(Hide quotations)


 4. Of character, principles, qualities, occas. of persons: Thoroughly excellent, capable of standing every test.

1647   J. Howell New Vol. of Lett. 247   'Twas your judgement, which all the world holds to be sound and sterling, induced me hereunto.
1755   E. Young Centaur v, in Wks. (1757) IV. 219   This love, supposing it sterling, I (stultus ego!) returned in kind.
1781   W. Cowper Table Talk 638   Then decent pleasantry and sterling sense..Whipp'd out of sight, with satire just and keen, The puppy pack that had defil'd the scene.
1789   J. Wolcot Subj. for Painters in Wks. (1816) II. 20   The Dev'l's a fellow of much sterling humour.
1815   W. H. Ireland Scribbleomania 70,   I..advise this nobleman to apply his abilities to some more sterling and lasting theme.
1824   L. M. Hawkins Annaline I. 248,   I know the sterling qualities you have.
1828   W. Sewell Domest. Virtues Greeks & Romans 33   They derived from their Celtic origin..many sound and sterling principles of conduct.
1832   W. Irving Alhambra I. 83   The nephew..is a young man of sterling worth, and Spanish gravity.
1876   J. B. Mozley Univ. Serm. (1877) iv. 74   Gospel prophecy would not only develope what was sincere and sterling in man, but what was counterfeit in him too.
1891   C. Roberts Adrift in Amer. 147   Her husband also was one of the most sterling good-hearted men I ever knew.
1896   A. E. Housman Shropshire Lad lxii. 92   Then the world seemed none so bad, And I myself a sterling lad.
1807   Salmagundi 27 June 230   A knot of sterling-hearted associates.

1647—1896(Hide quotations)