Currency Colloquialism: The Buck, Dough and Dollar

According to Chris Connell of the American Numismatic Association, we Americans have slinged around terms for money since the earliest days of our founding fathers. But what is the origins of this colloquialism, or informal words we use in conversation to describe the various denominations for currency in America?

Well, beginning in the 1740’s, for example, Americans were busy trading deer hides for goods and services, thus came the proverbial term for a dollar, a “Buck”.

Around 1767, a word derived from the Germanic “thaler,” was used throughout Europe and Great Britain from the 1500s to 1700s to refer to large silver coins. The English translation was “dollar.”

Another idiom used extensively to describe an insignificant value is the phrase, “not worth a red cent.” According to Stuart Berg Flexner (“Listening to America”), the original 1793 U.S. one-cent copper coin was issued until 1857. The cent has also been called ‘red cent,’ (from the copper’s reddish color). Since so many penny copper coins had been called ‘coppers,’ the first U.S. copper cent was immediately called a ‘copper’ and ‘copper cent.’ ‘Not worth a copper’ is an American term of 1788, followed years later by ‘not worth a red cent’.

Then, in 1851, “Dough” became widely accepted and was used extensively. It simply emphasized paper currency’s roles as one of life’s necessities.

Not long thereafter, Connell explains, the “Sawbuck,” was the norm when referring to a $10 bill. The name came from an early sawhorse whose crossed legs formed an X, the Roman numeral for 10, or a $10 bill.

On the website, Measuring Worth (, there are numerous ways to measure relative worth. As the site points out, “if you are asking what a monetary value in the past is “worth” today, there is no one correct answer. A price or an income in the past would have been valued in different ways in that time by different people and under different contexts. That must be taken into account when asking the same question today”.

I myself have wondered how the very rich people of today compare to the Robber Barons of the past. Recently it was reported that Warren Buffet is the second richest person in the world and is worth some $50 billion today. When John D. Rockefeller died in 1937 he was worth $1.4 billion. Who, you ask, is richer in their time? The best way to analyze this question, according to Measuring Worth, is by questioning how big their wealth is compared to the economy they lived in during their time. This is measured by their share of GDP and for Rockefeller, that number is $210 billion, or four times greater than that of the ‘Oracle of Omaha’, Mr. Buffet.

Finally, the term, “grand,” when referring to money was first introduced into pop culture in the roaring 1920s. Today, we all know that a “grand” refers to a thousand dollars. But originally, when it first came on the scene, it was short for “grand amount,” which at the time was a whopping $1,000. Depending on what method we use to measure the value of a grand, or $1,000 in 1920, Measuring Worth pegs the value in 2008 at the definite “grand amount” of $156,000. Wow!

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