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What is the origin or history of using "skin" to refer to "money?" For example, a golf competition called a "skins game" or, referring to an investor who, "has some skin in the game."

  • Maybe it meant that your skin would be peeled off if you didn't pay back the money. – Ramit Aug 8 '13 at 17:33
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Ultimately it appears to go back to the US Federal Reserve's design of dollar bills.

OED lists your references separately.

P18. colloq. (orig. N. Amer. Business). to have (one's) skin in the game and variants:
to have a stake in the success of something, esp. to have a financial or personal investment in a business; to be closely involved in something.

It is not clear whether the metaphor underlying this phrase is to do with putting oneself at risk (cf. the metonymic uses of skin at Phrases 1c), or with risking one's money (cf. sense 6); both have been suggested.

P1 c. In phrases concerning a person's life and safety, esp. to save one's (own) skin : to protect oneself from injury, punishment, or some other unwanted fate; spec. to save one's own life.

6. fig. U.S. slang. A dollar; = frogskin n.

An investor with "skin in the game" can either risk his money (skin = dollar) or maybe his entire livelihood. Either seems reasonable, although I think I favour the first because the word skin the phrase can be replaced easily with money. It's not easy to go from P1 c to P18.

The golf game has a sense all of its own:

26. N. Amer. Golf. A sum of money offered as a wager or prize to the winner of a given hole, which in case of there being no outright winner may accrue to the following hole. Cf. skins game n. [a game with such sums of money].

Again, skin here refers to money.

Skin as money appears to derive from the colour of dollar bills:

frogskin n.  [with reference to the green colour of the banknotes] slang  (a) U.S. a one-dollar bill; = toadskin n.

† toadskin n. N. Amer. slang. (obs.)  (a) a five-cent stamp;  (b) a banknote.

  • I don't believe skin = money was ever meaningfully valid. The (uncommon, imho) usage frogskin = dollar bill is simply an extension of greenback. The phrase skin in the game just metaphorically refers to having a valuable "part of yourself" at stake. You can have skin in the game even in contexts where there's no money involved at all, so long as you've invested something of value that you don't want to lose. – FumbleFingers Aug 8 '13 at 18:06
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    The following comes up when I asked about "skins" being used as a medium of exchange. "The use of the word buck to mean dollar came from the days when deer skin was used as a unit of trading in the early 1758. With the deer skin no longer used as a medium of exchange the word buck is sometimes still used to refer to the dollar." With that background, the use of "skin" for "money" might be a logical deduction. – Kurt Horst Aug 8 '13 at 18:28
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The Hudson's Bay Company, that was incorporated in 1670. They're company motto is Per Pelle Cutem which translates as For Pelts, Skins.

So, I think it's safe to say that it goes back before the founding of the USA.

A lot of North America was visited first by Europeans looking to trade for furs with the Indians, or to trap them themselves. Pelts were as good as currency for the first 200 years that the Europeans where on the continent.

The expression might come from a native language or perhaps (and I find this more likely) was part of the trade creoles that were created to communicate between cultures.

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