If you are under the age of 20, you likely have no idea about today’s word cheque, but for the rest of us, we realize that there was a time not too long ago when finance did not happen exclusively on a computer screen, and when paper was more important than plastic.
While nostalgia for cheques is difficult – they are not too convenient to carry, they are a pain to write-out, and they can be inefficient to process – they do have distinct advantages worth considering. Before discussing pros and cons, it is important to get an understanding of the word itself.
Our word cheque (or check in American English) arrived in English from the Old French eschequier, which is a variation of the Latin scaccus and originated as the Persian word for king, shah. Though we have come to equate the word with small strips of paper which detail a monetary exchange, it actually originated as a reference to the game of chess, and in particular – to the situation when the king is in check.
As the process of putting a player in check controls his movements in a game, these paper used for financial transactions, were initially intended as ‘a check/control against forgery,’ due to the fact that actually having a written and signed document could verify a claim of funds.
When the word first entered English in the late 1300s, it had the meaning of ‘collision, clash, sudden stop’. The first usages related to the game of chess, date to the early 1600s.
And by the mid 1600s, the word developed the meaning of ‘a token of ownership used to check against, and prevent, loss or theft’.
Firstly appearing in the Parliamentary Acts during the 5th year of Queen Anne’s reign (1706); however, in this usage, the word cheque identifies the counterfoil of a bank bill, or, as we would call it, the cheque stub.
It would take another 70 years for the word to be used for the paper bill itself: in The Cozeners (1777), Samuel Foote: “A draft!—A draft on his banker, I reckon… Let us see; What is the tote? A hundred and ninety-two pounds, six, and—oh! here he is, I suppose, with the cheque.”
And while the modern written cheques, initially called drawn notes, enabling customers to draw funds from their bank accounts, got in circulation in England in only the 1650s, the concept of a cheque is nothing new: the ancient Romans used an early form, called praescriptiones (order, law), in the first century BC. Muslim traders used a cheque system since the 9th century; and bills of exchange were developed in the 13th century Venice to allow international trade without the need to carry large amounts of gold and silver.
Yes, cheques have drawbacks, but some nations, such as France, which accounts for 70% of the EUs issued cheques and where the average person writes 37 cheques a year, are more willing to embrace their positive aspects. For example, unlike with credit and debit cards, there are no additional fees associated with processing cheques. Furthermore, the requirement of a signature as well as machine readable account and routing information make fraudulent transactions more difficult to process than they would be with only a chip or magnetic strip debit/credit card. Cheques are personalisable and to answer our modern times – paper cheques can be processed electronically and there are virtual versions as well, the e-cheques.