I've been rereading Heinlein's "Notebooks of Lazarus Long" recently and came across this phrase:

People who go broke in a big way never miss any meals. It is the poor jerk who is shy half a slug who must tighten his belt.

I understand what "shy (of)" means but I've checked dictionaries and can't figure out what "slug" refers to here. They propose meanings similar to this list:

  1. mollusk

  2. slow/lazy person

  3. bullet or a cylindrical piece of metal

  4. shot of an alcoholic drink

I don't really see any of them fitting here. From the way it's said it seems to mean something (not very) valuable since the "poor jerk" is not "broke in a big way" but still has to "tighten his belt" = go without a meal or two.

IIRC the original books date from 1950s-60s. The original book (Time enough for love) was written in the early 1970s.

  • 1
    This source (of dubious reputation, but with what I suspect is the true meaning here): a slug is slang for a dollar. So it’s the guy who’s short fifty cents who has to tighten his belt.
    – Jim
    May 19, 2017 at 21:09
  • 2
    OED confirms slug: "U.S. slang. A dollar; a counterfeit coin; a token." I'd bet my bottom dollar that there's no ambiguity here, it's talking about money. May 20, 2017 at 0:08
  • book written in 1973.. Heinlein only started to produce some juvenile novels in late 50 - early 60s (e.g. Starship Troopers). The line you quote was kind famous in 70-80 among sci-fi fans, along with term "pay it forward" and "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"
    – Swift
    May 20, 2017 at 8:48
  • the currency meaning seems related to meaning 3
    – Colin
    May 20, 2017 at 12:56

4 Answers 4


Given the context -- a galactic traveler dispensing bits of wisdom -- I always took slug to mean a generic unit of currency because the concept applies on any planet.

Even here on Earth, we have dollars, pounds, euros, yen, pesos, rubles, and so on, so if one were to give the same advice here, you'd probably pick a slang term that could be applied to any -- buck, quid, etc.

Perhaps, in this specific context, the term slug could be replaced by the equally generic coin or unit or credit, all of which I've seen used in various SF novels.

  • Thanks, this sounds plausible. was "slug" used this way in other Heinlein books (or other writers of that era)? can you find some quotes? May 19, 2017 at 21:12
  • I believe it has been used in other books, but I'm old and have kids so my memory is gone... 8^) I'll see what I can figure out. May 19, 2017 at 21:17
  • There is some interesting information in Wikipedia, though it doesn't mention slug specifically. May 19, 2017 at 21:18
  • And an (incomplete) list of currencies. Google will also give you links to a bunch of fictional currency generators. May 19, 2017 at 21:24

Prior to the 1980s, vending machines were less sophisticated at detecting simple washers and stamped disks called:


A slug is a counterfeit coin that is used to make illegal purchases from a coin-operated device, such as a vending machine, payphone, parking meter, transit farebox, copy machine, coin laundry, gaming machine, or arcade game. -Wikipedia

enter image description here

So I think the reference is to a less than complete piece of worthless metal, or in other words, almost nothing. The "poor jerk" is just another guy who did not go broke: he already was.


Cascabel's answer about the machine token slug is a good one, but metal slugs are in almost all circumstances whole and indivisible, making the reference to its half strange. I propose two other interpretations.

  • A coin, which is also a metal cylinder, but unlike the fake-money slug, its contents can be divided (except for a penny or its analog). You can come up short half a dime. In this case "slug" sounds like a slur against the inherent value of money.

  • Liquor, as in, the belt-tightener only gets half a shot of whiskey.

  • It just might refer to alcohol: back in those days drinking was not seen as such a loathsome habit. (but I think he would have written the price of half a slug) May 19, 2017 at 21:02

I translate that statement in completely different way. There is American informal idiom of being "half slug", i.e. not completely "slug". Original meaning refers to male genitals being neither firm nor flaccid, metaphorically it might mean "neither here, nor there", expressed in quite edgy way. Which fits to Lazarus' character.

So meaning of this is: Completely broke people never hesitate to get food in any way possible. Those who live near the edge of poverty (shy of - so, not completely, almost?) would still preserve their dignity, figuratively tightening their belts instead (enduring hunger).

Another version went into literary translation of that work: is related to meaning of slug as a metallic coin.. a dollar coin would be a "slug", "half a slug" is 50 cents. There is translation: "It is the poor jerk, who is too shy to solicit a half of dollar, must tighten his belt".

These "notebooks" were originally published as two "intermissions" in the 1973 novel "Time Enough for Love" and collected under the title "Notebooks of Lazarus Long" in 1978. The original book is from 1973.

  • Your translation is off. shy here means “to be short by” and he’s not soliciting a half a dollar. It means: it’s the poor jerk who is 50 cents short ...
    – Jim
    May 20, 2017 at 3:32
  • My comment above was just on your “another version” paragraph. I just read your first part about male genitals and I think this is just completely off-base.
    – Jim
    May 20, 2017 at 3:40
  • @Jim That's not my translation, that's literary translation that was made before my birth (in 1976 year). Well, otherwise quote doesn't look like having any sense, because first part would be if not matching the second half if following meaning you propose.
    – Swift
    May 20, 2017 at 8:27
  • Well, it’s a very poor “literary translation” then. I would suggest you avoid it in the future.
    – Jim
    May 20, 2017 at 10:23
  • 1
    Here’s how I interpret the statement: Very rich people, like for example Donald Trump, who go broke in a big way (like declaring bankruptcy after a failed business venture) still don’t need to worry about where their next meal is coming from. It’s the guy who comes up 50 cents short at the cash register when trying to buy food that has to put something back.
    – Jim
    May 20, 2017 at 15:37

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