Dough, Clams, and Cheddar: Diction of the Dollar


This Americanism is one of the most popular nicknames for money. The buck is thought to derive from buckskin, though buck can refer to a male deer, antelope, rabbit, hare, sheep, or goat. In the 1850s, the skin of deer was used by Native Americans and frontiersmen as a unit of exchange in transactions with merchants. We’ve come a long way from having to skin an animal to pay our bills, but in the vernacular the buck prances on.


There is a whole host of words in American usage that refer to money by its color, from spinach to plain old green. But none of them ring with as much delightful weirdness as cabbage. The term refers specifically to paper money, likely harking back to the paper-like quality of the green vegetable’s leaf. Cabbage as a verb can mean “to steal” or “to pilfer,” likely originating from the Old French cabas for “theft.” So please, think twice before you cabbage cabbage.


Clams aren’t simply bivalve mollusks that taste great in a light cream sauce. The word clam is slang for dollar bill. The usage is thought to originate from the various shells used as units of exchange in ancient times. In China, India, and Southeast Asia cowries were used as currency. Even into the 19th century, Native American tribes used various shells (including clamshells) as money.


From the Latin word for “duke,” the term ducat refers to a currency first issued by Roger II of Sicily, Duke of Apulia, in the 11th Century. The coinage spread throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance when ducats played an important role in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Ducats have traveled from medieval Italy all the way to the malls of Beverly Hills. In the 1995 film Clueless, Cher Horowitz describes her teacher’s meager wages using this term: “He earns minor ducats for a thankless job.”


Though it may seem that this term simply relates to the color of American money, greenback has more history to it than meets the eye. In the second year of the Civil War, the Union was racking up more debt than it could sustain, and the Demand Notes authorized by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase were not enough to pay the soldiers. So, on February 25, 1862, President Lincoln signed the first Legal Tender Act, printing $150,000,000 worth of paper currency using green ink, a unit that came to be known as “the greenback.”


Shekel is the only term on our list that is an actual form of currency used today. The shekel is the national currency of Israel, though it has also been used in English as a slang term for “cash” since the first half of the 19th century. The term was in use long before the shekel became the official currency in modern Israel in 1980. The word is derived from a Babylonian unit of weight, sheqel, which came to refer to a coin of this weight, minted in silver by the ancient Hebrews, bringing the shekel full circle in the Hebrew language.


Commerce would be much more delicious if money were made of cheese, but for now we’ll just have to sink our teeth into this piece of slang. Though the link is uncertain, cheddar, often pronounced chedda, is perhaps related to the cheese distributed to welfare recipients by the US government, referred to as “government cheese” in a short story by author Junot Diaz. The word cheddar comes from the village in Somersetshire, England, where the cheese was first made.


Last but not least we give you dough, a monetary Americanism that’s been with us since the 1850s. The term derives from doughface, a biting nickname given to Northern Democrats who worked for the South for financial gain preceding the Civil War. At the time doughface referred to “man who allows himself to be molded” as in Northerners who became the political puppets of the South. But whatever you call it, it’s important to remember that money is just a means to an end, and a dollar is only as good as the dough, cabbage, and cheddar it helps us enjoy.

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Word of the day

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