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When I hear money laundry lingo in TV crime-series, people sometimes fence stuff for so and so much "on the dollar". What does it actually mean? And where does the expression originate from?

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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It means that you are paying a price of 'X' for every dollar it is worth.

For example, if you are buying a refrigerator worth $100 for $60, you are paying at 60 cents on a dollar.

This expression can be used when something is sold at a premium too. Like, someone can sell you a stock at $1.50 on a dollar.

The use of this phrase can help people calculate profit or loss percentage pretty fast. I guess that could be the origin of the expression too.

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+1; a common variation is "pennies on the dollar" which just means "very cheap." –  MrHen Jun 13 '11 at 23:20
    
@MrHen, is that related to penny as in one cent? (and similar in origin to penny stocks) –  rest_day Jun 13 '11 at 23:22
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@rest_day Yes: a penny is one cent in US currency. –  user2512 Jun 13 '11 at 23:46
    
FWIW I'll note that I don't think I've ever heard anyone say "a dollar-fifty on the dollar" and would be surprised to hear it that way since the dollar-dollar sounds awkward. However, it wouldn't surprise me to hear something like "a buck-fifty on the dollar" or "a buck-and-a-half on the dollar". –  Matthew Frederick Jun 14 '11 at 0:07
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I am not sure if it is widespread, but I have heard some say "One fifty on the dollar". –  rest_day Jun 14 '11 at 0:14
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To get at the origin part of your question, I've got no definitive answer but was able to find it in print back to at least 1797. Here's an example from early New York State Law authorizing the state to collect a tax on its citizens:

http://books.google.com/books?id=Mns4AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA483&dq=%22cents+on+the+dollar%22&hl=en&ei=b7L2TfOGJ4Lu0gGV0NHsDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22cents%20on%20the%20dollar%22&f=false

Interestingly, this was not too long after the term dollar was officially adopted as a name for U.S. currency (and only three years after they were first minted) according to this bit on the word from Etymonline:

English colonists in America used the word [dollar] in reference to Spanish pieces of eight. Continental Congress July 6, 1785, adopted dollar when it set up U.S. currency, on suggestion of Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson, because the term was widely known but not British. But none were circulated until 1794.

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Great research! Some trivia on the side: Here in Norway we have a system that may be translated as "counting on the Crown", making it more easy for shop clerks to calculate change in a transaction. It has largely gone out of fashion with the rising use of price scanners, though. –  Kebman Jun 15 '11 at 21:53
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I suspect that the origin is in insolvency where debtors only got back part of their claims, measured in X cents on the dollar (rather than X percent), and that this later became a more general phrase for a discounted payment.

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