Mystified by bitcoin, satoshi, token, and cryptocurrency? Follow me into the blockchain mines to discover and polish some linguistic nuggets. I also look into one of the newer applications of blockchain: Voatz, which is offering voting by smartphone app to military servicemembers from West Virginia who are stationed overseas.
Token. This very old word is used in three novel ways in the blockchain universe. In a general sense, it describes any cryptocurrency. (Bitcoin is a token; Ethereum is a token.) It may also describe a unit of value (“I have 100 Bitcoin tokens”). And it may, according to CryptocurrencyFacts.com, refer “to the fact that the creation, transfer, and storage of cryptocurrencies use strings of data called tokens.”
Token goes back to Old English, where it was spelled tacen and meant a sign, a symbol, or evidence; it could also mean “a characteristic mark.” (During the plague years of the Middle Ages, the purplish spots on an infected person’s body were called “God’s tokens.”) The idiom “by the same token” – meaning “in the same way,” “for the same reason” – first appeared in the mid-15th century. By the late 16th century, a token was a coin-like piece of stamped metal,” a meaning we still see in “subway token.”
Token became an adjective meaning “nominal” or “symbolic” in the early 20th century; token payment (of a small or nominal sum) was first recorded around 1933. This “minimal” sense carries over to tokenism, a word that appeared in the 1960s to describe the practice or policy of making only a minimal effort toward racial or ethnic integration.
For more on blockchain, see my November 2017 blog post.