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I was going to the hole-in-the-wall to get some rhino the other day, when I started to wonder why cash is so-called.

I hit the books. Farmer & Henley gives no etymology. Partridge says

Origin problematic; there is probably some allusion to the size of a rhinoceros or the price which almost any part of its corpse will fetch as an aphrodisiac.

This is supported by the related terms rhino-fat, rhinoceral and rhinocerical, all meaning 'rich'.

Green thinks

ety. unk.; one suggestion, that it refers to the rhinoceros, then a fabulous creature 'worth its weight in gold', implies a certain lexicographical desperation

I had no luck with online sources either (here).

So, does anyone know why money is called rhino?

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So, I've learnt something new today. Despite my addiction to English, I had never heard this term being used with reference to cash. Is it a term that people would recognize outside the UK? Can it be freely used (I suppose in a colloquial context)? –  Paola May 26 '12 at 13:31
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@Paola: I'm a native speaker from the US, and this word was new for me, too. –  Henry May 26 '12 at 15:30
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@Paola: I'm a native speaker from the UK, and this word was new for me, too. –  Hugo May 26 '12 at 22:07
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@Paola I'm also a native speaker from the UK, and have never heard this expression. –  TrevorD Jun 25 '13 at 11:14
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Several of the suggested derivations here seem to be based on Cockney rhyming slang, or something similar. That does tend to produce slang terms which are (deliberately) very hard for the uninitiated to understand. –  keshlam Jun 27 at 13:35

9 Answers 9

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is probably an unanswerable question, but an interesting suggestion is that the 'rhino' being alluded to is not the pachyderm, but the nose (as in rhinology or rhinoplasty), and 'rhino' as cash is linked to the earlier phrase 'paying through the nose'.

http://www.wwwk.co.uk/culture/phrases/paying-through-nose.htm

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As you say, the origin is uncertain. The OED has mentioned the earliest instances of its usage, which are as follows:

1688  Shadwell, Sqr. Alsatia I:- "Thou shalt be rhinocerical, my Lad."

1699 Dunton's conversation in Ireland, Life & Errors (1818):- "It was pretty to see the Squire choused out of so fair an estate with so little ready rhino."

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The OED also gives this: Forms: 16 ryno, 16–17 rino, 16 18– rhino. Etymology: Origin uncertain. The collocation with rhinocerical adj. in quot. a1628 suggests that the word may show a shortening of rhinoceros n. (perhaps with allusion to the value of rhinoceros horn), although this could equally reflect after-the-fact rationalization of a word of different origin, or even punning. Compare later rhino n.2 –  Hugo May 26 '12 at 21:59

The hilarous A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785)

has these interesting entries:

RHINO, money, (cant)

RHINOCERICAL, rich (cant); the cull is rhinocerical

So these expressions might have been somewhat current in the late 1700:s

Other expressions for being rich:

GINGERBREAD:... also money; he has the gingerbread; he is rich

OAK a rich man, a man of good substance and credit

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Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests 'one plausible origin' as powdered rhino horn brought back from the East, commanding a high price for its reputed properties. Brewer's not good on definitive answers, but unbeatable for plausibility.

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I also feel compelled to mention that I've only ever heard this from Brian and P G Wodehouse; but then, each of them has better English than the Daily Mail, let alone the New York Times. –  TimLymington May 26 '12 at 17:57

The expression is very old. in Washinton Irving's "The Devil & Tom Walker", a character says "When will you want the rhino" when referring to some buried treasure. Clearly it was a common enough expression at the time, because Irving makes no effort to explain it to his readers. So, I think we can rule out Ryan O'Neil as the source.

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Two separate sources (although this one may well be quoting this one) say that "rhino" as a shortening of "rhinoceros" to mean the animal was not known until 1884. If this is true, it seems unlikely to me that "rhino" meaning money/cash would be shortened from "rhinoceros" in the 17th century.

Coming up with other plausible suggestions is nigh on impossible though - perhaps the nose connection ("rhinos" = nose in Greek) might be a link to xiàng shù, the ancient Chinese art of physiognomy, in which one's nose shape is said to "indicate your money situation". Pretty tenuous, I admit, but possible?

Another fairly tenuous suggestion might be a link to the Middle English word "rinen", as defined in the first etymology here: “to touch, lay hold of, reach, seize, strike, have connection with, contact”

To be honest, I'm not convinced by either of these, but they're better than Ryan O'Neal :-)

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Rhino horn.......Corn!! Corn is slang for money

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I was once told that it is neither form of Rhino but rather Ryan O as in the actor Ryan O'Neil who played a character who conned people out of money in the film "Paper Moon"

When people refer to Ryan O it is generally in the context of unlawfully obtained cash.

This is probably nonsense but it is interesting.

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OED has a citation from 1688 which links it to rhinoceros (see Shyam's answer), and an earlier quotation from 1628. Even Ryan O'Neil isn't that old. –  Andrew Leach Jun 25 '13 at 10:30

The first time I heard the expression was in the definition of a rhinoceros - the richest animal in the world - from rhino, meaning money and sore arse meaning piles; hence piles of money! I don't know if that helps much though.

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