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Money matters

Though love of it may be the root of all evil, it is also said that money makes the world go round, so it’s not surprising that so many words for the stuff have entered the English language. It seems that only sex and drink challenge it for the number of slang terms, which gives a pretty good indication of what most people have thought most important to them down the centuries.

Colloquial terms for specific sums of money can cause embarrassing problems when you come across them for the first time, say in the slang of builders or second-hand car dealers. Some less reputable persons are known to use the words to confuse naive customers; indeed some of them may not be too sure themselves of the values implied by the slang terms, which adds an extra dimension to the potential confusion. A number of these slang money terms are well-known and well-established in Britain, especially in and around London, and several of them have crossed the Atlantic to mean the equivalent sum in dollars; the reverse process has also happened.

A score would obviously be twenty pounds (or twenty dollars), though it is not so common a term as it once was. A score was at first a cut (it is related to shear) but then developed to mean a notch in a piece of wood, an idea it keeps in the modern verb “to mark or incise a line”. Notched sticks, called tallies, were widely used to keep accounts as recently as the nineteenth century, with one half being kept as a record by each party to the transaction (the old Palace of Westminster was burnt down in 1834 when a stove being used to dispose of unwanted Exchequer tally sticks overheated). The word score very early on acquired a meaning both of “a reckoning, tally” and of “a count of twenty”, the second of these perhaps being a result of the common practice of counting to twenty orally and only notching up the number of twenties.

A ton is £100 (half a ton being therefore £50). This relates to a common usage in a number of contexts, for example, to do a ton is to achieve a speed of 100 miles per hour and in darts or cricket a ton is a score of 100. This is familiar enough not to seem an odd usage, even though ton is most commonly met with as a largish unit of weight. Actually, all down its history it has been a measure of volume as well as weight, perhaps not surprisingly so because the word comes from tun, the name of a type of wine cask, which could be treated as either. For example, the registered capacity of a ship is measured in volume units, not weight, in which a ton is taken to be 100 cubic feet (this is probably the origin of ton meaning 100, but nobody seems to know for sure).

Another term for a hundred pounds is one-er, which can also mean £1,000; another, found in the US but which has not become common in Britain, is C or C-note, derived from the Roman numeral meaning 100. Yet another one is yard, also unknown in Britain and not even well-known in the US, I’m told, whose origin is unknown; in fact, it is not even clear to me that it refers to 100 dollars: the OED says it can be either but one reference book says it is always a hundred, while another says it is sometimes taken as a hundred, but is more commonly a thousand (elucidation from experts is welcomed). The relatively common US term for a thousand dollars, a grand, has become pretty well naturalised in Britain, with most people knowing what you mean by it, though it has become fashionable, at least in London, to call it a K; it has frequently been seen in job advertisements from the eighties onward for the more laddish types of jobs, such as sales representative (computer buffs should not assume it means 1,024). An alternative US form, big one, is sometimes heard, but sounds foreign and even a bit passé.

A term for £50, which I have never heard and which is in none of my reference books, was given by Jeff Howell in an article in the Independent on Sunday. He claims that nifty is now a London builders’ term for that sum. It sounds plausible, as being an obvious rhyme. Though nifty is a naturalised British word in the senses of “smart, stylish; adroit, skilful” and has been over here since at least the 1930s, it is of nineteenth-century US origin. However, nobody seems to know where it comes from (Bret Harte’s suggestion that it is an abbreviation for magnificat sounds a bit far-fetched, though it might be a shortened form of magnificent).

A money word which will be familiar to anyone who has watched shows on television featuring criminals and the British police is drink, as in “That’ll cost you a drink”, an obvious elliptical abbreviation of “That’ll cost you the price of a drink”. The difficulty is to work out how big a drink really is. It long ago ceased to have any relation to the price of an actual drink, if it ever did, and seems these days to be somewhere between £10 and £50, depending on where you are and the size of the job or favour. There is also a large drink, and the dreaded big drink, which is about ten times the size of a drink and usually refers to some dodgy transaction that would not withstand close scrutiny by the forces of law and order.

Of all the money slang terms, perhaps the oldest and best established are the pony and the monkey, respectively £25 and £500. Of the two, pony seems to be the older, being documented from the end of the eighteenth century; monkey is first recorded in 1832 (though the German visitor who did so thought it was only five pounds, which might have been a bit of a shock for him when he found out). As usual, nobody seems to know where the words originated, except that they both grew out of gambling, the race track and general raffishness. Another term for £25 is macaroni, rhyming slang for pony, which was invented last century and is still to be heard in some specialist fields.

Coming down to smaller sums, we have tenner and fiver for £10 and £5, terms so frequently employed as almost to be standard English; oncer was at one time moderately common for a one-pound note but is not now to be heard, since notes of that denomination were long ago discontinued in England and Wales.

The most common slang term in Britain these days for a pound is quid, a term which was once used also of the guinea. It is always used in the singular, so one speaks of “ten quid” or “fifty quid”, never of “quids”, except in some set expressions such as quids in, meaning “in luck; well off for money”. It may derive from the Latin quid “what?” or from some association with the quid of chewing tobacco, which itself is just a variant of cud. This is pretty widely used throughout the country, but a rather older term, which has become less common recently and has much stronger London associations, is nicker. This dates from early this century (it explains that terrible old joke: “Why can’t a one-legged woman change a pound note? Because she’s only got half a (k)nicker!”) and which nobody seems to know the origin of. There are many other terms for the pound, now mostly obsolete: note (from the period when paper money was substituted for gold sovereigns but before inflation brought the pound down to the status of small change); bar (for a sovereign, possibly from the Romany bauro for something heavy), and smacker (presumably from the noise it made when you were counting out a sum in pound notes on a counter). Another obsolete term is marigold, a Victorian term for a sovereign, from the colour of the gold coin, but which in City financial circles at one time could also mean one million pounds.

There have been lots of names for British coins in times past, such as tanner for the old sixpence (either from the Romany tawno, “small”, or perhaps linked to a ponderous old joke from the New Testament about Peter “lodging with one Simon a tanner”); bob for a shilling (from the 1780s, an abbreviation of bobstick, origin unknown); for the half-crown coin (that is, two shillings and sixpence) there were tosherooon (from Polari, a corrupted version of mezzo caroon) or half a dollar (from a period when the rate of exchange was better; in the 1870s, the old crown coin, five shillings, was at times called an Oxford, which is rhyming slang: Oxford scholar = dollar). Another term of long-standing was joey, originally a name given by cabbies to the silver Britannia groat, or fourpenny piece, which was issued in 1836, largely at the insistence of Joseph Hume, the economist and MP, who said it would be useful for paying short cab fares and the like, but which stopped being issued in 1855, after which the name was transferred to the then silver threepenny piece instead.

Such names for smaller sums of British money have obviously fallen out of use since the decimalisation of the currency in 1971, which rendered most of the old coins obsolete, and have not yet been replaced with new ones. The only one which achieved popularity was Maggie in the eighties, of the then new gold-coloured one-pound coin, because, it was said, “it’s brassy, two-faced and thinks it’s a sovereign” (the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had a noticeable tendency to mimic some of the more regal characteristics of Her Majesty). Perhaps the nearest equivalent outside Britain is the Canadian one-dollar coin, universally called a loonie, ostensibly because of the bird pictured on one face, but more likely an expression of what people thought of the coin (it was conceivably also a comment on the Government’s poor security, allowing the dies for the coin to be stolen, so forcing them to fall back on the second-choice design).

We may never see replacement slang terms for the new post-decimalisation coins in Britain; they’re worth so little they don’t impinge on people’s consciousness the way they did a century ago. The names for multiples of the pound seem likely to have more staying power, though.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Jun. 1997
Last updated: 27 Dec. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/money.htm
Last modified: 27 December 1998.