My idea is to compare this etymology with the one I will trace out in the next post on "money", courtesy, once again, of the OED, so we can see how two different societies have constructed their language, their attitudes about filthy lucre.
This text is MY translation of an entry in "Le Robert, Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française" (historical dictionary of the French language). In what follows, I will lace French terms with the English translation.
ARGENT : a masculin noun from the high period (881), from the latin argentum, which designated the metal, (silver), silverware, and starting from Plautus, coin/currency. This noun, part of a vast series, is derived from arguere, "brightness, splendor, whiteness", whence the verb arguere, in the archaic sense, "to make shine, to give light", later giving rise to "to prove, demonstrate, convince", in the figurative sense (i.e. argument). The metal is called "the shiny", as "or" (gold) is called "the yellow". This appellation can be found in Greek, in the Celtic languages... It is perhaps an appellation borrowed originally from an Indoeuropean word.
IN FRENCH, "ARGENT" refers to IN ITS FIRST SENSE, and STILL TODAY, the precious (white) metal (silver). (My emphasis, you guys... YOU GUESS WHY !!!)...Since the 12th century the word has a particular symbolic meaning (blason) : it symbolizes whiteness, and splendor.
The meaning "monnaie métallique" (currency) appears early (1080), first for "monnaie d'argent" (silver currency), then in the XII century for all metal currency. The "ideas" attached to the word become more and more abstract as currency increasingly detaches itself from PRECIOUS (me again, ha !) metals : "billets" (bank notes) REPRESENT (me...) "argent" (metal) and ARE... "argent" (currency). However, starting with Old French, the means of payment was designated by a word initially concrete (deniers, pécune) (and not "ARGENT"me). The fact that the word "argent" has been substituted for these CONCRETE words, or "or" (gold) in modern French can be attributed to financial history which accorded the greatest importance to "argent" (more coins in silver minted, I think...) Usage has also played a great role. "argent liquide" (cash) "argent comptant" (immediate payment, cash or check) "argent de poche" (pocket money)....
The word "argent" is one which has the greatest number of slang, and familiar substitutes.
Comment : I LIKE THE FRENCH. Look, the PREDOMINANT sense of the word STILL is... the precious metal.
The process by which the word "argent" came to represent "currency", in French, is an example of what linguists call "metonymy". That means that since the greatest number of coins were initially made of silver, the meaning "currency" was derived from the makeup of those coins. Another example : in French we say "boire un verre", to drink a glass. Of course... nobody drinks a glass, you drink.. the contents of the glass. But if you think about it, NOBODY talks so precisely as to eliminate metonymy. You would sound really weird if you did...