Ken Potter's Educational Series

Coin Or Medal? - An Opinion
by Ken Potter - NLG
Feb. 21, 2004

Image Ken Potter 2003

   Numismatists all know the difference between a coin, medal and token; as the terms are accepted in numismatics. In general, I believe we should attempt to correctly apply those terms when used within numismatic circles  -- especially within scholarly works. I also believe that when somebody calls a "medal" a "coin" within a numismatic forum that it is correct to point out that the term "coin" is normally used within this hobby to refer to a piece bearing a monetary value and issued as money (usually by an official entity) and further define what a medal is, etc.
    However, when it comes to sports medals (or medallions) or other topical medals, I've noticed that we all too often, wrongly "attack" those who call them "coins," for doing so. We thoughtlessly suggest that such usage is "deceptive" or "inappropriate," without even thinking about what we are saying – even when the term is used appropriately outside of the scope of numismatics. The attacks are at times, so aggressive that the attackers not only suggest deception but also ridicule the user for his or her ignorance -- to the point that they undoubtedly alienate such folks from our hobby forever.
    While we in the numismatic hobby have our own definitions that apply within, it is my opinion that the term "coin" is a perfectly acceptable generic reference to what medallions look like and how they are made (via a "coining operation" on "coin presses"). By and large, such usage is intended to convey, to a largely non-numismatic oriented public, what the medals resemble. While the numismatic hobby may alter general definitions to serve a need for more specific communication tools within our circle of interest -- we must understand that those terms are non-binding on others.
    In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "coin" (as a noun) is defined in part as: "a: a usually flat piece of metal issued by governmental authority as money, b : metal money, c: something resembling a coin especially in shape."
    Thus, according to Merriam-Webster, a "coin" can be: "something resembling a coin especially in shape." I won't buy into the concept that they are referring to milk-bottle caps or pogs!; it is clear that medals and tokens are what this part of the definition covers.
    So I ask: when are we as numismatists going to wake up and learn that there are broader definitions to many items or concepts on this earth than what numismatic definitions may encompass? When are we going to learn to accept terms with definitions that differ from our own as appropriate in various formats outside of our own? If you are marketing a sports medallion then the term "coin" is perfectly appropriate. Can you really see the NFL offering for sale an example of a "flip medal" when they can offer it as a "flip coin?" I seriously doubt that anybody is being fooled into thinking that they can take their $39.99 Super Bowl "coin" to the store and spend it as a dollar or at any dollar level (unless the vendor takes it in as a trade, i.e., barter).

Image Ken Potter 1999

    There is also the issue of "Challenge Coins" (which are actually medals by numismatic definition) which are issued by many entities within the military. These are becoming a very large part of the military memorabilia collecting hobby as anybody typing "Challenge Coin" into an eBay search box will see. In doing so I found 1,928 auctions offering these as "coins" (at the time of this writing) -- while only 39 auctions offered them as "medals" (all/or most of which also referred to them "coins" as in "challenge coin medal"). You can also run searches on "Disney Coins" v.s. "Disney Medals," (or Simpsons, Star Trek, Peanuts, Beatles, etc.), and see what you get. You guessed it -- the majority will be called "coins."  Are these largely non-numismatic oriented topical collectors wrong for applying a Merriam-Webster definition to the naming their collectibles? I think not!
    My position is, that as numismatists, we must understand that there are acceptable variations in definition to terms than what we might have them defined as in a "numismatic dictionary." Our terms often largely apply only within numismatics and we have no right to state or imply that others are wrong for applying perfectly legal and accepted "Merriam-Webster" terms to their hobbies. Arguments that sports medallions are not "coins" are only valid within a strict numismatic context -- beyond that the arguments are not only seriously flawed but futile.
    Do numismatic purists really think that the publication of narrow views will all of a sudden make collectors of "sports coins" or "challenge coins" change their terminology? I've been a numismatist for 45 years as a collector, more than 30 years as a dealer and more than 25 years as a researcher-writer. If I put on each of these hats, I can respond to the use of the term "coin" to describe a "medal" in different ways. As a collector or researcher, I see a coin as a coin, a medal as a medal, a token as a token, a bar as a bar, etc., but as a marketer that is interested in making a profit – I'll certainly refer to sports medallions as "coins" in any venue where I see it best fitting. After all – that is what they are called, more often than not,  within those hobbies and that is one of the definitions found in Merriam-Webster.
    No matter how you want to look at it, the inescapable fact is, all hobbies are becoming more globalized (via the Internet) and centralized (in venues such as on eBay). As the boundaries between many hobbies becomes more blurred, and more interaction between them takes place, the more we are going to have to learn to live with the fact that others often have a different usage of identical terms (to those we use).   Instead of suggesting a hobbyist representing a different interest than our own is "wrong" (in using a term that is actually "right" within his/her hobby), it is time to learn respect those differences.  We can either act as numismatic ambassadors of goodwill through respect and tactful education and possibly attract "new blood" --  or we can act as numismatic judge and jury and drive candidates to our hobby away through our own ignorance.  It's your choice!

Ken Potter
P.O. Box 760232
Lathrup Village, MI 48076-0232

  Phone: 1-(313)255-8907   E-mail:
Numismatist Since 1959 ~ Serving the Collector Since 1973

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