Coin Collecting Terminology

Coin collecting has its own lexicon that you’ll find it helpful to become familiar with. These words help collectors accurately discuss coins. If you spend much time around other collectors, looking at coins, reading about coins, or even shopping for coins, you’ve probably run into a few of these. If you haven’t, then learning about them ahead of time will prepare you for when they do come up. This is just a starting list; in future posts, I’ll explain more coin vocabulary.

The collecting or study of money is called numismatics (pronounced “noo-miz-ma-ticks”). Coin collecting does not have its own word, so numismatics can mean someone who studies money, someone who collects currency (paper money), someone who collects tokens, someone who collects coins, etc. The most common meaning, however, is the collecting of money or money-like items (tokens, medals). In a library catalog, searching for “numismatics” is going to take you directly to money and coin related items. It’s good to be familiar with this term so that if you see things like the “American Numismatic Association” or a magazine called “Numismatic News”, you’ll have a better idea what they are.

Someone who collects or studies money is called a numismatist (pronounced “noo-miz-ma-tist”). If you’ve started your own world collection, you are now a numismatist. That sure sounds fancier than calling yourself a “coin collector”.

The parts of a coin are important to know for both describing coins and understanding what other people are saying about them. A coin has 2 sides, or faces. Most people just call these “front” and “back”, or “heads” and “tails”, but the correct terms are obverse (front/heads) and reverse (back/tails). For most coins the obverse is the “heads” side – the side with a picture of a person, or animal, or coat-of-arms – and the reverse is the “tails” side. For coins that don’t have an obvious obverse or reverse, I’m unsure how you pick which is the “front” and which is the “back”. A coin also has an edge, which is the (usually) flat part that runs around the circumference of the coin. Sometimes the edge of a coin can be as distinctive as its obverse or reverse – keep an eye out for coins that have words, symbols, or a design on their edge (like the United States’ Presidential $1 coins).

A coin’s alignment means how the obverse and reverse are lined up with each other. Each side of a coin has its own “up” direction, where the picture or writing is right-side up. Sometimes this “up” direction is the same on both sides, and sometimes it is opposite. Hold a coin so that one side is right-side up and flip it left-to-right (horizontally) to view the back. If the back is still right-side up, then the coin has medal alignment.  If the back is now upside-down, then the coin has coin alignment (if you flip the coin top-to-bottom, or vertically, then the back appears right-side-up). On modern coins, any alignment besides these 2 is usually an error. If you have trouble remembering the difference between coin and medal alignment, think about a large medal hanging from a ribbon around someone’s neck.  To view the back, you would turn it side-to-side – and the back would still be still right-side up so you could read it. That’s medal alignment.

High-grade (left) vs low-grade (right)

A coin’s condition or grade is an indication of how good (or bad) it is.  A coin with a high grade would be clean and shiny, with few scratches and very little wearing.  A coin with a low grade might be dirty or stained, have a lot of scratches or nicks/cuts, and/or be worn down (so that the original intricate details of the coin are gone). In the United States, we usually use a grading scale that goes from Poor (P) to Brilliant Uncirculated (BU):

  • Poor (P)
  • Fair (F)
  • Almost Good (AG)
  • Good (G)
  • Very Good (VG)
  • Fine (F)
  • Very Fine (VF)
  • Extra Fine (EF or XF)
  • Almost Uncirculated (AU)
  • Uncirculated (U or Unc.)
  • Brilliant Uncirculated (BU)

Picking the correct grade for a coin is subjective unless the grading is done by a professional. Wikipedia has a basic overview of the coin grading scale that may help you grade your own coins.

A possible cull quality coin

You may occasionally see the word cull in association with coins. A cull coin is usually a coin that is so damaged as to be non-collectible. It may have nearly all the design worn off, it may have a large cut or gash, it may be missing part of the coin, or it may have one or more holes drilled into it (such as to hang it from a necklace). If you are shopping online, you generally don’t want cull coins.

A coin’s composition is the metal (or metals) it is made of. Coins can be made out of many different metals – aluminum, bronze, stainless steel, zinc, copper, etc. – and are sometimes a mixture of 2 or more metals (such as United States pennies, which have a zinc core with a copper coating). Composition may be given in percentages (“92.5% silver, 7.5% copper” or “.9250 silver”) or just the metal (“zinc-copper”). Sometimes the composition of a coin will change (due to changes in metal prices) from one year to the next, without the coin’s design changing.