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What does the expression

[x] for the money

mean?

I remember hearing the topic title in a rap song (can’t remember which, might be Eminem), and there seem to be movies named after this pattern: Two For the Money with Al Pacino and One For the Money, an upcoming comedy.

Urban Dictionary does not seem to know this expression, neither does dict.cc give a proper translation.

What does it mean and where does it come from?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

My impression is that

One for the money. Two for the show. Three to make ready. And four to go.

(or "three to get ready" in contemporary English) is something that children say when they start a race (the running starting on "go"). Anyway, it's appears in this 1872 book, (it's not a race here, but FumbleFingers has found another 1872 citation where it is used for a race).

I would assume that "the money" refers to the prize for winning, and "the show" to the spectacle of the race. Generally, a children's race won't have either of these (unlike, say a professional horse race), but it doesn't hurt to pretend.

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Here's a rather morbid 1837 instance. –  Callithumpian Sep 23 '11 at 0:49
    
Having also noted that @Callithumpian's instance starts with One to get ready, I reckon it's a definitely a kids' ditty. Maybe originally said while doing something collective other than having a race. Like throwing one of their number in a pool, for example. I'm thinking something like that because there would maybe be a "practice swing" (one get ready, two do a 'practice/show' swing), then the real three get ready, four go! as they toss someone in the water (or whatever). –  FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 3:03
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I first heard it in Blue Suede Shoes written by Carl Perkins in 1955 (decades before Eminem was even born), and popularised by Elvis Presley a year later. But all credit to @Peter Shor for pointing out that it was around a very long time before that. I found a different instance to Peter, but they're both from 1872.

Possibly it's an allusion to the idea that the performer makes one (the first) effort because he's getting paid for it, and two (the second) because he just likes performing. Or perhaps it's one for the performer's money, and two for the share going to the venue. After that it's just counting in to the start of the main action.

It was originally three to make ready, but that sounds a bit dated to our ears. Today it's invariably three to get ready except for the title of an episode in the 60s TV series My Favorite Martian.

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I'll leave this answer here because I don't want the only modern reference on this page to be Eminem, but I'm rooting for @Peter Shor's take on it now. Probably nothing to do with money or even a performance, originally. –  FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 3:06
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The The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes and The Phrase Finder cite a horse race poem that is likely the source of the phrase. In horse racing, the winners are termed:

  1. Win
  2. Place
  3. Show

The omission of "place" is noted in The Phrase Finder. This is likely poetic license, to make a short rhyme, used to start a race or event.

Exerpt from The Phrase Finder post:

In "The Annotated Mother Goose" p 259 the following rhyme is included:

One to make ready

And two to prepare

good luck to the rider

And away goes the mare.

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In ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, Elvis Presley sang:

Well, it's one for the money, / Two for the show, / Three to get ready, / Now go, cat, go.

I’m not sure it means very much at all.

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It's much, much older than that (the link is to an 1872 book). "One for the money. Two for the show. Three to get ready. And four to go." –  Peter Shor Sep 22 '11 at 17:51
    
@Peter Shor: Lawks! I'd no idea! Excuse me while I go and tinker with my answer... –  FumbleFingers Sep 22 '11 at 18:04
1  
Maybe I should just write an answer. –  Peter Shor Sep 22 '11 at 18:15
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protected by J.R. Apr 26 '13 at 8:37

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