THE BLOG
10/18/2014 07:54 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2014

All That Moola: The History of 'Bucks' and Other Words We Use to Mean Money

Sergey Sundikov via Getty Images

Last week, my wife and I went to our favorite pizza place. When we were finished eating, the waiter brought us the check. I didn't have the correct change. So I quickly figured the tip in my head, gave him two larger bills, and said to him, "Just bring me back five dollars, and I'll be happy." He replied, "Okay, I'll bring you back five bucks."

His referring to five dollars as five "bucks" caught my attention. When growing up in southern Missouri, "bucks" was a very common term used for "dollars," but having lived in the St. Louis area for the last 20 years, it had been some time since I had heard "bucks" used in this way.

This caused me to wonder how bucks came about to mean dollars and, for that matter, what about other terms often used to refer to money such as "grand," "dough," "lettuce," "bacon," "sawbuck," "scratch," and "stash," to mention a few. So for the third week in a row I am writing about money.

The exact history of "bucks" used for "money" is uncertain, but the leading theory, which seems likely, is that "bucks" came about as a substitute for money in the 1700s, when deerskins were a common medium of exchange for other items of value. The earliest written evidence I could find for this was in 1748, when Conrad Weiser, a Pennsylvania Dutch pioneer who served as a diplomat between early colonists and Native Americans, noted in his journal that someone had been "robbed of the value of 300 bucks" and that the exchange rate "for a cask of whiskey" traded to Native Americans was "5 bucks," referring to deerskins.

Many years later, when the deerskin was no longer used as a significant unit of trade, the word "buck" shifted to a more general reference to the dollar. And in many parts of the United States, "dollars" are still referred to as "bucks."

I can find no credence for the notion, put forth by some activist clergy, that using the word "bucks" for "dollars" is racist, referring to young male slaves being called "bucks" because they were used as beasts of burden and were traded for tangible goods.

Earlier this week, I asked a young acquaintance about the tuition charged for a school we were discussing. He replied, "It's about 20 grand a year." I, in turn, asked him if he knew how "grand" came about to mean "one thousand dollars." He said he didn't, but would like to know. So, here is how it happened.

As with bucks, the exact history as to how "grand" came to mean "one thousand dollars" is very uncertain. But here's the predominant consensus. In the 15th century, the Old French word "grant" (stemming from the Latin grandis meaning great or large), was adopted into English as "grand." It was used to mean something "large in size" or something "very important."

The use of "grand" to refer to money dates from the early 1900s and as disconcerting as it may be to some people, comes from America's underworld. The mob was always looking for language to use as code words for money. Nearly everything the mob did was traceable to money secured by illegitimate or violent means, and mob families were always in search for words that could be used to disguise any reference to money. They came up with a number of different terms that now are used as slang for money by the population in general.

In this day and age when government budgets of all developed countries are in "billions" of dollars, one might think one thousand dollars is a mere pittance. But in the early 1900s one thousand dollars was considered to be a "grand" sum of money, and the underground adopted "grand" as a code word for one thousand dollars. The mob in Europe adopted the same term, and now "grand" is worldwide slang for one thousand dollars.

The mob has had considerable influence on developing a special "underground" vocabulary for money. The mob was organized by families, and most families were of Italian origin. Italians are known for having large family dinners, when family members sit around a large family table discussing all sorts of subjects. It should, therefore, be no surprise that the mob devised an entire "food" vocabulary for referring to money in general: for example, "bread," "bacon," "gravy," "dough," "lettuce," and "cabbage," to mention the most used ones. There is no genuine evidence that "lettuce" came to be used as a word for money because of its green color.

There are many other terms never used as code words by the mob that have, nevertheless, become slang for money -- terms that have other rather obvious reasons for being used in referring to money. For example, a sawbuck resembles "X," the Roman numeral for "ten," so "sawbuck" is used to refer to a ten-dollar bill. "C note" used to refer to a one hundred dollar bill came about from "C" being the Roman numeral for "hundred." And it doesn't take much imagination to figure out the connection to money of such terms as "a bundle," "tender," "silver," "five spot," and "greenbacks."

There is no known origin for the word "moola," first used as slang for money in 1939, or for "stash," dating from 1797 and first used as a word for money in about 1914. The word "scratch" has been used as a noun since 1586, but we do not know when it began to be used as slang for money.

This covers many words used for money, although there are many more used less often.

This is the third week in a row I have written about money. I promise a change of subject next week.