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from: List of historical Chinese currency terms

角 (litterally a corner / a horn of an animal) = 毛 (litterally "a feather of a bird") = 1/10 the main unit.

Why use 角 and 毛 for, what we might call in American English, 10-cents?

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Are you asking about the evolution of the word or how 1/10th of a dollar represents 10 cents. –  50-3 Jun 17 at 11:02
    
I'm asking why 角字 and 毛字 are used to represent 1/10th of a 元. –  user3306356 Jun 17 at 11:16
    
I've never used 角 in oral communication. It's always 毛. 角 is usually used in written though. both 角and 毛 mean 10 cents –  Ike Jun 17 at 13:30
    
That's not true. I always use 角. Both are correct, and that isn't what the question is asking for. –  Bob the zealot Jun 18 at 2:21
    
You've generalised an individual preference into a language-wide feature. This is simply a bad linguistic practice. In addition, you didn't really answer the question. –  deutschZuid Jun 18 at 23:41
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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

角 came from 銀角, which was historically a currency that represented a fraction of the silver coin (銀元). 元 came from 圓, a description of the coin's circular shape. A theory for 角's use is that since the basic meaning of 角 is a horn; by extension it came to be used to describe "things that looks like horns". And from there, "corners" 角落, "angles" 角度, etc. Dividing a circle up like pizza slices creates a "角"; hence, the divisions of one 元 (圓) came to be called a 角.

As Carmelos said, 毛 came from a simplification of 毫 - it is the bottom radical of the latter. 毫 in turn comes from one of the traditional Chinese unit for small numbers: 分 厘 毫 絲, corresponding to the modern 10-3 (it is still used for millimetres, 毫米/公厘). A theory is that 毛钱 was a type of coinage in the Song dynasty that had very small values, as its name suggests. The term persisted in that meaning of a "small denomination coin", and thus became synonymous with the modern small 角 coins.

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I thought it might be relevant to note that in Cantonese, 毫 is still used as the colloquial term for 10 cents. –  Claw Jun 17 at 17:01
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I don't know how good you are at Chinese, you can read this Chinese wikipedia page for more information: http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/角_(貨幣)

"毛" is simplified from "毫", which means little amount. In Chinese we have a saying as "一分一毫", which means very little amount. In most part of China, "毛" and "角" are interchangeable.

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To answer the question why use them:

Similarly people use dime, nickel, or penny. It is a convenient way to saying 10 cents (分)

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There is a lot more to that. People don't just pick a random word and start to use it to refer to something. There is a whole science behind it called historical linguistics. –  deutschZuid Jun 18 at 23:46
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