Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States - A Complete Encyclopedia


Popular Terms for Dollars

by Walter H. Breen

Morgan and other nineteenth and twentieth-century dollars have had many nicknames besides the newspaperese daddy dollars. Some of the following names have been indifferently used for Morgan and Peace dollars, usually in plural form; others are earlier. Sources include W&F = Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang; Partridge {l961} = Eric Partridge, Dictionary of American Slang and Unconventional English; Partridge {l966} = Eric Partridge, Origins.

Few nicknames allude to the designs. John Bergman showed me a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the late 1870s; here, though Bland dollars was the quasi-official colloquial honorific, buzzard dollars recurred, in scurrilous allusion to the eagle. (The Carson City Morning Appeal April 17, 1878, called Morgan's bird a "pelican-bat of the wilderness": see the amazing quotation at 1878-CC above.) And as recently as the 1950s, Southern black people called the coins bow dollars, from the ribbon bow tying wreath. (Over the years I have heard this from several Southerners but have seen no printed source.)

Cartwheels has been common since the 1850s, in allusion to size and readiness to roll on a floor. Before it meant Morgan or Liberty Seated dollars, it meant British crowns or five shilling pieces, and generations earlier Matthew Boulton's two pence and pennies. Big boy (also alluding to the coin's diameter) dates back to 1900-1910, but was later confused with big one meaning either a $100 or $1000 bill.

Simoleons sounds like a nineteenth-century comedian's neologism, in the sesquipedalian orotund manner of Petroleum V. Nasby (1833-88). W&F date it to 1890, but it is probably older. The same may be said of spondulix (from before 1857, later meaning money in general). Partridge {l966} suggested a derivation from the element spondyl (o)-"vertabra, clam shell." That would link spondulix semantically with clams and several other nicknames alluding to the sound made by a genuine silver dollar flung onto a barrelhead or tabletop. Clams (also probably nineteenth century, though W&F cite it only from 1939) recalls clam "clamor."

Less effectively echoic is plunk (ca. 1880); this was later diminished to mean a half dollar. In the film My Favorite Spy (1951), the sound word for a silver dollar was clacker; an earlier circus and hobo term was danker. Smackers (from around 1921 or earlier) and smackeroons most likely allude to the same sound; the -eroons suffix, as in nineteenth-century London slang tosheroons or tusheroons "florins," may come from the Irish affectionate diminutive aroon. One might conjecture bones (in use from 1905 or earlier) to be another sound money term, likening silver dollars' clatter to that of the minstrel end man Mr. Bones' instrument-castanets; if so, it may well be much older. However, it has also been claimed as akin to French abonnement "subscription money" or Spanish bonanza "prosperity," both ultimately from Latin bonum "a good thing."
Shekels for "silver dollars" is theatrical slang, common in the early 1900s, though as early as 1870 it meant money in general, like the 1890s hardtack. Many terms for particular denominations were generalized that way: dinero (collective noun), pesos (perversely for U.S. dollars, since the 1920s), dollars themselves. So too, English bucks ("sixpences"), by the 1850s crossing the Big Pond to mean "dollars," paper or silver.
Iron men "silver dollars" suggests hard money in contrast to paper; W&F traces it only to 1932, but is is probably older. W&F cite simon "dollar" as from 1859; I have not elsewhere seen the term. Its metaphoric origin is obscure: does it equate "Simon says" with "Money talks"?

On this same subject, an editorial in Numismatic News, September 29,1992, quoted the following slang references from the 1956 edition of The American Thesaurus of Slang, under the heading "silver dollar:"

Ball, banger, bat, bean, berry, biscuit, bone, can, cartwheel, check, checker, chip, clam, clank, clanker, coach wheel, drum, iron man, iron smacker, medal, plank, planker, plate, platter, plug, plunk, plunker, rock, rocker, seed, shiner, sinker, slug, smack, smacker, smackerino, and smackeroo.

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