The phrase comes from the time when banknotes were first introduced they weren’t considered to be money in the sense we now think of them, but were promissory notes or IOUs.
Gold or silver was real money as it had intrinsic value, whereas notes were just promises to pay in coin. UK banknotes, like those of many other countries, still include messages such as this, signed by the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England: ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds’.
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