From the second edition (1989):
sterling, n.1 and a.
(ˈstɜːlɪŋ) Forms: α. 3–6 sterlinge, -ynge, 4 sterlyngge, 4–6 starlinge, -yng(e, 4, 6–8 starling, 5–6 sterlyng, 7 sterlin, 8 sterline, 3– sterling. β. Sc. 5 strivilin, 6 stirveling, stirviling, striveling, striviling, strivling, 6–7 stirling, 7 stirlin, stirvlin. [Early ME. sterling, whence OF. esterlin, med.L. esterlingus, sterlingus, sterlinus, MHG. sterlinc, It. sterlino. Of uncertain origin, but probably a late OE. formation in -ling1.
The earliest known example (in the Fr. 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 c. Ordericus Vitalis (a 1145) has in Latin libræ sterilensium, and libræ 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 c., 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 OE. *steorling, ‘coin with a star’ (f. steorra star), some of the early Norman pennies having on them a small star. An old conjecture is that the word is derived from 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. Walter de Pinchebek (c 1300) gives this explanation, saying that the coin was originally made by Easterling moneyers; but the stressed first syllable would not have been dropped.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. Glouc. (Rolls) 5949 He ȝef hem atten ende Four þousend pound of sterlynges. Ibid. 11840 Þe king‥eche ȝer him sende A certein summe of sterlings to is liues ende. c1300 Fleta ii. xii. (1647) 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 Langl. P. Pl. B. xv. 342 As in lussheborwes is a lyther alay and ȝet loketh he lyke a sterlynge. c1386 Chaucer Pard. T. 579 Myn hooly pardon may yow alle warice So þat ye offre nobles, or sterlynges, Or elles siluer broches [etc.]. 1387 Trevisa Higden (Rolls) VIII. 167 Þ e kyng‥ȝaf hym an hondred schillynges of sterlynges. 1418 E.E. Wills (1882) 32, I bequethe to Ionet my wyfe‥xl. li of Sterlinges. 1423 Rolls of Parlt. IV. 256/2 Silver‥beyng as gode of alay as the sterlyng. a1500 Brome Bk. (1886) 149, xx s. of starlynges. 1598 Stow Surv. vii. (1603) 52 Paid in starlings which were pence so called. 1861 Numism. Chron. I. 56 English and Foreign Sterlings found in Scotland. 1868 C. M. Yonge Cameos (1877) I. xxiii. 179 Your words smell of English sterlings.

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 Charters etc. Edin. (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 [orig. (? 15th c.) sterlingus] suld wey xxxij cornys of gude and round quhete. 1609 Skene Reg. Maj., Stat. Robt. II 56b, 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.

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 inflexion.

1433 E.E. Wills (1882) 95 Y bequethe to litill Watkyn, my Godsone‥x markes sterlynges. 1464 Rolls of Parlt. V. 530/1 An annuall rent of xl li. Sterlinges. c1483 Caxton Dialogues 51/22 A pound sterlings. 1486 Rec. St. Mary at Hill (1905) ii, vj marc sterlynges. 1528 Sel. Cases Star Chamber (Selden Soc.) II. 20 As moche wood as ys woorth iiij powndes sterlynges. 1542 Udall Erasm. Apoph. 248b, The thousande pieces wer muche about the summe of twentie nobles sterlynges.

2. a. = pennyweight. Obs.

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 Cotgr. s.v. Carat, For eight of them [carrats] make but one sterlin, and a sterlin is the 24 part of an ounce. 1776 Entick London I. 160 A penny, weighing two sterlings.

b. attrib. sterling weight. Obs.
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. Tresury Hhij, A Table to finde Auerdupois weight reduced to Troy weight, and sterling weight.

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 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. 1583 Greene Mamillia ii. (1593) L2, It is‥so hard to descrie the true sterling from the counterfeit coyne. 1602 Dekker Satirom. D2, Drop the ten shillings into this Bason.‥ So, ist right Iacke? ist sterling? 1605 A. Warren Poor Man's Pass. E3, Whose coffers with Commodities abound So full, that they no sterling more may hold. a1635 Randolph Poems (1640) 113 Hexameter's no sterling, and I feare What the brain coines goes scarce for currant there. 1699 Garth Dispens. 19 By useful Observations he can tell The Sacred Charms that in true Sterling dwell, How Gold makes a Patrician of a Slave [etc.]. 1707 Norris 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.
fig. 1584 Greene Mirror Modestie Wks. (Grosart) III. 25 And seeing we haue you here alone, your stearne lookes shall stande for no sterling. 1584 —— Tritameron i. Biv, Your censure is no sentence, neither can this broken coine stande for sterlyng. 1602 Shakes. Ham. i. iii. 107 You haue tane his tenders for true pay, Which are not starling.

4. 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 Stafford's Pac. Hib. ii. iv. (1633) 157 Monies of this new Standard of Ireland‥being brought back againe to the Exchange to be converted in sterling. 1724 Swift Drapier's Lett. i. (1730) 17 The Tenants are obliged by their Leases to pay Sterling, which is Lawful Current Money of England. 1834 J. D. Lang Hist. Acc. N.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 Ibid. 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.)

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

1827 P. Cunningham Two Yrs. N.S. Wales II. 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. Acc. N.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. 1837, 1892 [see currency 4b. fig.].

c. attrib. with the sense: Related to or payable in sterling. sterling area, the group of countries (chiefly of the British Commonwealth, from 1947 officially known as scheduled territories: see scheduled ppl. a. b) 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, deposits in sterling which are held in British banks by overseas creditors (see also quot. 1948).

1894 H. Bell Rlwy. Policy India 81 A new contract‥granting a sterling guarantee of 312 per cent on the capital expended. Ibid. 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. Ibid. 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 Outline of 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 Koestler Promise & Fulfilment 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.

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

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 Drapier's Lett. ii. (1730) 55 Gold and Silver of the Right Sterling and Standard.

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

1. In pound etc. sterling, altered from the older pound etc. (of) sterlings (see A 1, 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.

α 1444 Rolls of Parlt. 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 Joye Apol. Tindale 22, iiij pense halpeny starling. 1665 Lamont Diary (Maitl. Club) 176 He was dew‥of excyse,‥ane thowsande lib. sterl. 1673 Temple Observ. United Prov. ii. 86 Above Sixteen hundred thousand pounds Sterling a year. 1689 in Acts Parlt. Scot. (1875) XII. 60/1 Þat they retaine 25 lib. starling of the excyse. 1713 J. Watson Hist. Printing Publ. 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 Drapier's Lett. ii. (1730) 62 England gets a Million Sterl. by this Nation. 1727 A. Hamilton New Acc. E. Ind. I. xxi. 249 A Xerapheen is worth about sixteen Pence half Peny Ster. 1806 Gazetteer Scot. (ed. 2) p. xxv, 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 De Morgan Ess. Probab. 18 Concerns which now employ many millions sterling. 1849 Lyell 2nd Visit U.S. II. 167 The value of the whole‥amounting to 350,000 dollars, or 73,500l. sterling. 1856 Emerson Eng. Traits, Relig. Wks. (Bohn) II. 100 The religion of England‥believes in a Providence which does not treat with levity a pound sterling.
β a1578 Lindesay (Pitscottie) Chron. Scot. (S.T.S.) 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 Dalrymple tr. Leslie's Hist. Scot. I. 333 He was redeimet with a ransoune of ane hunder libs stirling. Ibid. II. 355/20 [He] suld pay xx shilling Stirueling for his offence. 1611 Speed Hist. Gt. Brit. ix. xii. §119 His [David II's] ransome was one hundreth thousand markes striueling. 1613–18 Daniel Coll. Hist. Eng. Wks. (Grosart) V. 261 The ransome of a hundreth thousand Markes stirulin.

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

α c1400 Brut clxiii. 182 The Kyng [Edw. I] ordeynede þat þe sterlinge halfpeny and ferthinge shulde go þrouȝ-out his lande. 1482 Cely Papers (Camden) 100 The sowdeers hath leiver to be payd here at xxvj s viij d. than hawe in Yngland sterlyng money. c1483 Caxton Dialogues 17/35 Ryallis nobles of englond,‥Olde sterlingis pens. 1561 Norton tr. Calvin's Inst. iv. xviii. 146 marg., The common price of a Masse in fraunce is .iii. Karolus‥about the value of a sterling grote. 1565 Cooper Thesaurus s.v. Census equestris, 400 Sestertia, of olde sterlyng money 2000 poundes. 1590 Webbe Trav. (Arb.) 27 A pennie loafe of Breade (of English starling money) was worth a crowne of gold. 1597 Shakes. 2 Hen. IV, ii. i. 131. 1651 J. Marius Adv. conc. Bills Exch. 69 How to bring French Crownes into Starling Money. 1634 Peacham Compl. Gentl. xii. (1906) 122 Libra or Pondo‥was worth of sterlin money three pounds. 1755 in Nairne Peerage Evid. (1874) 36 Eighteen pounds eighteen shillings ster1 money. 1816 Scott Antiq. i, Three shillings of sterling money of this realm. 1837 Carlyle Fr. Rev. I. iii. iii, And, say, in sterling money, three hundred thousand a year.
β 1488 in Acta Dom. Concil. (1839) 98/2 Twa vnces of striuilin pennyis. 1535 Stewart Cron. Scot. 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 Skene Reg. Maj., Stat. Dav. II, 44 It is statute that the kings money, that is, stirlin money, sall not be caried furth of the Realme.

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

1641 Milton Animadv. 21 Setting aside the odde coinage of your phrase, which no mintmaister of language would allow for sterling. 1651 Culpepper Astrol. Judgem. Dis. (1658) 154 If the credit of Hippocrates may passe for starling, he protests that [etc.]. 1727 De Foe Eng. Tradesman (1732) I. xviii. 248 What are they but washing over a brass shilling to make it pass for sterling? 1780 Burke Sp. Bristol Wks. 1842 I. 257 If our member's conduct can bear this touch, mark it for sterling. 1817 Jas. Mill Brit. India III. 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.

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

a1568 R. Ascham Scholem. ii. (Arb.) 96 This waie of exercise was‥reiected iustlie by Crassus and Cicero: yet allowed and made sterling agayne by M. Quintilian. 1593 Shakes. Rich. II, iv. 264 If my word be Sterling yet in England, Let it command a Mirror hither straight.

3. 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. cf. quot. 1423 in A1.

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 Sir J. Williams Accompte (Abbotsf. Club 1836) 86 In grotes stricken wt harpes, the some of mlml li, converted and made‥of mldcxxv li sterlinge siluer. 1676 W. B. Touchst. Gold & Silver (1677) 35 If it [plate] be worse then Starling it will appear Yellowish. 1681 Lond. 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 Roscommon Ess. Transl. 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 Lond. Gaz. No. 6134/4 Silver‥Shooe-Clasps, mark'd Old Sterling. 1743 Tindal tr. Rapin's Hist. II. xvii. 157 A pound of old Sterling Silver [was coined] into Half-Shillings, [etc.]. 1776 Adam Smith W.N. I. i. x. 129 The sterling mark upon plate, and the stamps on‥cloth, give the purchaser much greater security.

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

1689 J. Collier Misc. ii. (1694) 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 Harte T. à Kempis, Medit. 72 True faith, like gold into the furnace cast, Maintains its sterling pureness to the last. 1784 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.]. Ibid. vi. 990 What is base No polish can make sterling.

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.

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

c1645 Howell Lett. (1650) II. 122 Twas your judgment, which all the world holds to be sound and sterling, induced me heerunto. 1755 Young Centaur v. Wks. 1757 IV. 219 This love, supposing it sterling, I (stultus ego!) returned in kind. 1781 Cowper Table-T. 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 Wolcot (P. Pindar) Subj. Painters 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 Dom. 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 Mozley Univ. Serm. iv. (1877) 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 Amer. 147 Her husband also was one of the most sterling good-hearted men I ever knew. 1896 A. E. Housman Shropshire Lad lxii, Then the world seemed none so bad, And I myself a sterling lad.
Comb. 1807–8 W. Irving Salmag. (1824) 196 A knot of sterling-hearted associates.