Clams, Cheese, and Bread: Why We Call Money What We Do

by Paul Michael on 17 June 2014 1 comment

Money. Sadly, it does make the world go around. There are around 180 different types of currency in the world, including the Albanian lek, the Haitian gourde, the Moroccan dirham, and the Zambian kwacha. But you are more likely to know the slang terms for the US dollar and the British pound than any of those. Do you know where those terms actually came from? Let's take a look.

Buck

We use it so often, most of us don't stop to think that the word buck has very little to do with the word dollar. There doesn't seem to be any correlation, anyway. Why do we use bucks, when dollars works just as well? It seems there are many theories surrounding the origin of buck. The most popular is that is derives from the word "buckskins," which were a valuable form of currency when colonials were trading goods with Native Americans. For instance, a cask of whiskey would be worth five buckskins. Perhaps the terms "bucks" just stayed with us, even when deerskins have long since stopped being used as currency.

Quid

The natives of Britain commonly refer to the English pound as "quid." Only someone trying to appear very formal would say "pounds," when "that'll be 20 quid" is so much more acceptable. Where did quid come from though? Again, there is not one specific and definitive source, but two popular theories keep appearing in research documents. We know the word quid has been around since the 1600s. The Latin term quid pro quo (something for something... remember Hannibal Lecter?) was widely used back then, and it could have easily been coupled with a monetary exchange. However, the fact that a site of the Royal Mint was in Quidhampton, Wiltshire, is also floated as a possible source.

Bread or Dough

We've all heard these terms, and they're especially popular in the UK. Many people suspect that the term came from the fact that bread is one of the most basic forms of food, and something we often used to rely upon for nutrition. "Give us this day, our daily bread," from the Lord's prayer, for instance, could be taken literally or figuratively. The term breadwinner, used commonly from the 1940s onwards, took this idea and ran with it. The term bread was directly tied with someone who earned money. From there, it's easy to see how bread, and subsequently dough, came into common usage. Then there's Cockney rhyming slang. The term "bread and honey" was used instead of money. But there's enough evidence to suggest that bread was used as a term for money before the Cockney's adopted it.

Clams

If something is going to set you back 75 clams, you know what you're going to be paying. A clam is one dollar. How on earth did that connection become established? The most popular answer to this question is that clamshells were once used as currency in different parts of the world. There is also evidence that Native Americans from the California region (the Miwok people) dealt in strings of clamshells as currency, or for barter and trade.

Cheddar or Cheese

Although not related to any specific amount, people often refer to money as cheddar, or cheese. Ever wonder why? It appears to date back to the 1960s, when welfare and food stamp recipients were provided with a product called government cheese. It sounds about as appetizing as it probably was, as this processed product was made from surplus milk and different types of cheeses, blended with emulsifiers. Terms like "you get your cheese yet?" started to become synonymous with getting money from the government, not just processed cheese.

Sawbuck

Of all the terms on this list, the sawbuck is the easiest to explain. A sawbuck is another name for a sawhorse, which was originally fashioned by lashing two pieces of wood together to form an "X." Some of the first US $10 bills had a large Roman numeral X (10) printed on one side. It was from this simple visual cue that the sawbuck nickname was born.

Greenback

We know the term greenback as a generic term for dollars, but back in the mid-1800s, it was not a term of endearment. During the American Civil War, over $400 million in legal tender was printed to finance the conflict. But this money, printed green on one side, did not have the secure backing of gold and silver. Because of this, banks were reluctant to give customers the full value of the greenback dollar. Remember that next time you ask for 100 greenbacks; a history buff may just shortchange you. (By the way, our British readers may know the term from a very popular show from the eighties. Baron Greenback was the master villain that Danger Mouse often tried to overcome.)

Know any other slang terms for US Dollars? Please share a few in comments!

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Max Wong's picture

As someone who has actually eaten Government Cheese, I feel compelled to defend it. It is delicious and makes THE BEST grilled cheese sandwiches. Seriously, other processed cheeses like Kraft Singles and Velveeta have nothing on Government Cheese.

It's also still available through some USDA food programs for those who qualify:
http://www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/contacts/sdacontacts.htm