9

I grew up in South Africa. When someone said something costs 'two bucks' it meant two rand (like saying two dollars, but South African currency).

It made perfect sense, as the 1 Rand coin had an image of a Springbok on it (3rd from right):

SA coins

(source: Wikipedia)

However, I then moved to New Zealand. The 1 dollar coin has a Kiwi on it (not a buck). But you still hear people saying 'a buck'. Even in adverts on tv.

So what gives? I assume there's a different etymology, but all I can find online are some comments about buckskin, but that doesn't really seem certain.

  • 5
    The word has been in use in this sense since 1748 according to etymonline. I would guess most currencies have changed their designs quite significantly since then, and the term likely didn't come from any design on a coin at all. The fact that there happens to be a buck on the 1 rand coin is probably either coincidental or reversely causal: they could have put the buck on the coin because a [basic unit of currency] is referred to as a buck. Similarly, a modern-day dollar doesn't have anything to do with valleys, either. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 14 '15 at 9:13
  • "Buck" is commonly understood to mean "dollar" in the US (and has been pretty much forever). I have no idea where the term came from - I doubt that it was from having the image of a buck (of any species) on the dollar coin/bill. – Hot Licks Mar 14 '15 at 12:00
  • No I fiigured it was maybe from bucks being used for barter, before the coin, but I can't find proof. – Mark Mayo Mar 14 '15 at 12:27
  • 1
    @MarkMayo Well, Etymonline agrees with your conjecture, but unfortunately they were also unable to turn up any specific evidence for it: Meaning "dollar" is 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin, a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days, attested in this sense from 1748. FYI, the US does have bucks, as does Canada; if by countries who "have the dollar as a currency but lack a native antelope species" you mean Australia or NZ (who both have may dollars but few mammals), then I'd imagine the word was simply imported from abroad. – Dan Bron Mar 14 '15 at 16:09
  • 1
    This is a great etymology and usage question; and OP included details along with a basic research. OP mentioned that he searched for the origin as well and found the relation with buckskin and bartering but he wanted to get more details and supporting sources. I can't understand the down-votes unless there is some hidden intention here. – ermanen Mar 15 '15 at 2:42
10

Buck is not originated from any currency design that features a buck or similar animal and it is used as a slang term for a dollar or similar currency in various nations including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States.1

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says that buck is originally US but applied in Hong Kong and other countries where dollars are unit of currency. US, 1856.

On the other hand, a coin design (or an animal as a national symbol) can give the slang name to the coin or the currency. For example:

  • Kiwi is used as a slang term for New Zealand dollar especially in the context of currency trading because kiwi bird is a national symbol and it is also featured on $1 coin.2

         enter image description here

  • Loonie is used for Canadian one dollar coin because it features a loon on it.

         enter image description here


So, where is buck originated from as a slang term for dollar?

OED says that the origin is obscure and lists the earliest usage below from 1856:

Democratic State Jrnl. (Sacramento, Calif.) 25 July 3/2    Bernard, assault and battery upon Wm. Croft, mulcted in the sum of twenty bucks.

However, there are two leading theories for the origin of buck as a slang term for dollar but there is no consensus on one origin.

1. From poker, where the token in front of the dealer was called a buck whose handle was made of buck horn and it is related to the phrase pass the buck.

Pass the buck is from 1865, said to be poker slang reference to the buck horn-handled knife that was passed around to signify whose turn it was to deal. [Etymonline]

The below excerpt is from the book Poker (By Wikipedians):

The use of other small disks as such markers led to the alternative term "button". Silver dollars were later used as markers and it has been suggested that this is the origin of "buck" as a slang term for "dollar", though by no means is there universal agreement on this subject. The marker is also referred to as "the hat". The origin of this term is believed to stem from the wearing of a hat having been used to denote dealership.

2. From trading, short for buckskin, a common medium of exchange in trading with the Indians.

Meaning "dollar" is 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin, a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days, attested in this sense from 1748. [Etymonline]

The below supporting evidence is from the book Daily Life on the Nineteenth Century American Frontier (By Mary Ellen Jones) and there is even an example usage from 1735:

Beaver skins and buckskins became units of exchange in backcountry areas of the colonies, influencing not only the economy but also the language. In 1735 a trader complained about a clerk who had that day "sold only eight bucks of goods". And in 1748 the Indian Agent Conrad Weiser told Ohio Indians, "Every cask of whiskey shall be sold to you for five bucks in your town" (Furnas,37).

Another supporting evidence from the book America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America (By Allan Metcalf, David K. Barnhart):

The Indians taught the European settlers the value of a buck. In the eighteenth century, that meant a deerskin, used for trading in its own right and as a unit of value for trading anything else. So in 1748, while in Indian territory on a visit to the Ohio, Conrad Weiser wrote in his journal, "He has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks"; and later, "Every cask of Whiskey shall be sold...for 5 bucks in your town."

Additionally, there is one related origin from Canada where buck is originated from beaver pelt trading and it gave the name to a coin that features a beaver on it:3

enter image description here

King Henry IV of France saw the fur trade as an opportunity to acquire much-needed revenue and to establish a North American empire. Both English and French fur traders were soon selling beaver pelts in Europe at 20 times their original purchase price.

The trade of beaver pelts proved so lucrative that the Hudson's Bay Company honoured the buck-toothed little animal by putting it on the shield of its coat of arms in 1678. Sir William Alexander, who was granted title to Nova Scotia in 1621, had been the first to include the beaver in a coat of arms.

The Hudson's Bay Company shield consists of four beavers separated by a red St. George's Cross and reflects the importance of this industrious rodent to the company. A coin was struck that was equal to the value of one male beaver pelt – it was known as a « buck ».


1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slang_terms_for_money
2 http://defineaz.com/en/economy/kiwi.html
3 http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1363619815777/1363619877898

  • An addition to your first paragraph: buck is also frequently used by (American) English speakers to refer to the basic, default unit in any currency assumed to be the ‘standard’ one where you are. Many Americans living in Europe would naturally say “I paid ten bucks for it” even if what they actually paid was ten euros (or whatever the local currency where they live is), for example. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 14 '15 at 23:56
  • As a NZer (lived there half my life) I've NEVER heard the term 'kiwi' used for a dollar. It's a slang for the fruit (kiwifruit), the name of the bird, and a colloquial for the person from NZ (I'm a Kiwi). – Mark Mayo Mar 15 '15 at 3:20
  • Ah the actual currency itself, rather than the coin. That's quite different. The looney on the other hand, when I lived in Canada, you'd actually ask for a looney or a tooney ($1 or $2) – Mark Mayo Mar 15 '15 at 3:27
  • Yeah, in forex / currencies they talk about the Kiwi against the Aussie dollar. But the wording above sort of implies it's because of the dollar coin, where as in the cited link they're two distinct sentences and relation is implied. /quibble – Mark Mayo Mar 15 '15 at 3:30
  • 1
    @MarkMayo: Thanks for the helps also! I learned more about NZ and look forward to visiting there! – ermanen Mar 15 '15 at 3:43
1
  • Buck: (informal) a US, Australian or New Zealand dollar; a South African rand; an Indian rupee They cost ten bucks. We're talking big bucks (= a lot of money) here.(ODO)

The following extract, as well as other sources, suggest that the more plausible origin of buck meaning dollar comes from the custom of using deerskins as a medium of exchange before the introduction of the USD as the official american currency. This theory is extremely plausible and backed up by a fair bit of documented evidence. It reasonable to assume that the term buck remained and was adopted also by other economies where the USD was used before or together with their national currencies.

  • One of the earliest references of this was in 1748, about 44 years before the first U.S. dollar was minted, where there is a reference to the exchange rate for a cask of whiskey traded to Native Americans being “5 bucks”, referring to deerskins.

  • In yet another documented reference from 1748, Conrad Weiser, while traveling through present day Ohio, noted in his journal that someone had been “robbed of the value of 300 Bucks.”

Buck skin as a medium of exchange

  • At this time, a buck skin was a common medium of exchange. jThere is also evidence that a “buck” didn’t simply mean one deerskin, but may have meant multiple skins, depending on quality. For instance, skins from deer killed in the winter were considered superior to those killed in the summer, due to the fur being thicker.

  • It is thought that the highest quality skins were generally assigned a one to one value with one skin equaling one buck. In contrast, for lower quality skins, it might take several of them to be valued at a single buck. The specific value for given sets of skins was then set at trading.

  • In addition, when the skin was from another animal, the number of skins required to equal a buck varied based on the animal and the quality of the skins. For instance, there is one documented trade where six high quality beaver skins or twelve high quality rabbit pelts each equaled one buck.

  • This use of skins as a medium of exchange gradually died off over the next century as more and more Europeans moved in and built towns and cities. Once the U.S. dollar was officially introduced after the passing of the Coinage Act of 1792, it quickly became the leading item used as a medium of exchange, but the term “buck” stuck around and by the mid-nineteenth century was being used as a slang term for the dollar.

  • A probem here is that all deer are not bucks (only the adult males are bucks). Also a buck can be a male of other species, including humans, as for instance in the term "young bucks". There are also other meanings, as in horse riding, or cutting wood. – jamesqf Mar 14 '15 at 19:10
0

I only know how to post images in an answer.

In the United States, we were close to having a buck (the male deer) on our money. It would have been on the Quarter, though, rather than on the dollar.

From this site about the 50 States Quarters Program, we can see that a design for the reverse of the Illinois quarter was one of the designs submitted to the mint, making it somewhat of a finalist.

Proposed Illinois quarter design with what might be considered a quarter of a buck

The image can also be seen here with other proposed designs and here on its own.

From the image, we might even say that we can see 1/4 of a male deer on this proposed "quarter buck".

Wisconsin also had a similar "finalist" for its state Quarter design.

Wisconsin Quarter design with possible buck

Also see here, here, and here for images of the proposed Wisconsin Quarter design.

Some other states had proposed designs which included deer, but which were not seriously considered. Minnesota, Nebraska 1. Nebraska 2

Montana had a proposed design with a male elk minted, but elk (male or female) are not called "bucks". Male elk are called "bulls" or "bull elk". See also here and here to see submitted elk designs for Montana.

There is also a bull elk on the reverse of the 2011 America the Beautiful Quarters Olympic National Park (Washington) coin.

Edit: I couldn't find any images of deer at this guide to US coins site, but I might have missed something.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.