September 29, 2017

Words of the Month - Naming the Needful

        Not surprisingly, the English language has a plethora of words for money, especially slang words.  After all, the more we talk about something, the more words we come up with to spice up the conversation.  Here are a few of our words for that filthy lucre (which is from the King James translation of the Bible).

money - from Old French from Latin, in which moneta was the mint, so called from a title of the goddess Juno Moneta, in whose temple coins were minted.  (By the way, mint itself comes from the same root.)  Not until the early 19th century did money apply to paper bills as well as coins.

currency - used in 1699 by John Locke to refer to the flow or current of money in the economy.

cash - originally a money box in the 16th century, the secondary sense of the coins inside the money box took over as the sole meaning in the 18th century.

coin - from Old French for “wedge” because the die for stamping the coins was wedge-shaped.  (Yes, it’s related to quoin, “an external corner of a building.”)

bill - from the 166os, with a long history tracing back to Latin, of referring to receipts, formal documents, and official notices.

quid - 1680s, British pound, probably from Latin “that which is, what, something.”

bread - As mentioned back in May, bread is short for bread and honey, which rhymes with money.  However, a century before money was called “bread” it was already
dough - This slang usage appeared in the mid 19th century.  One source claims it’s a variant of bread, from the idea of the daily necessary basics of life, but since dough comes first by a full century, I don’t think that holds up.  Nevertheless, clearly the idea of conflating money with food is a popular one, as in
gravy, potatoes, chicken feed, peanuts, cabbage, kale, lettuce - (The last three, of course, are not just about food, but referring to the green leaves of US bills, like greenback.)

spondulicks - mid 19th c, possibly from Greek spondylos, a seashell used as neolithic currency.
buck - mid 19th c, a US dollar, possibly from buckskin as a unit of trade between Europeans and Native American Indians.
simoleon - 1895, a US dollar, unknown, but possibly from Napoleon, a late 19th century French gold coin, or semodius, a Roman coin
Clearly another recurring theme is calling money by the names of foreign currencies or money, including
shekels, gelt, wampum, dinero, ducats

boodle - mid 19th, usually graft money, possibly from Dutch boedel, “property, riches.”
pelf -  1500, originally stolen goods, then booty or loot (now distinctly archaic).
The underworld is a rich source of words for money, including the grand or G for a thousand dollars (1915).  The most popular letter indicating 1000 bucks has now shifted from G to
K - from kilo-, originally from the 1970s, but I suspect it really took off with all the talk about Y2K in the very late 20th c.

Another theme in money slang is references to the metals of which coins are made (or at least metals that seem jocularly similar), including
brass, nickel, tin

This is far from a comprehensive list of money words, but there were a handful that I hated to leave out because they’re such fun, but which, like so much slang, have unknown etymologies...

smacker - c. 1918 (maybe from being smacked into a palm?)
moolah - c. 1920
lolly - mid 20th c

        All these words clearly indicate a serious and abiding obsession with money, which is understandable, if perhaps not our noblest focus.  On the other hand, many of these words are purposely a bit silly and probably serve to lighten money talk so that the speaker sounds more off-hand or less seriously concerned with money.

[Pictures: Master of the Mint, wood block print by Jost Amman from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
The Rich Man, wood block print by Hans Holbein, before 1538 (Image from]


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