The etymology of "ton" is described by the OED as derived from French meaning "cask."

In origin the same word as tun n.1 (Old English tunne, Old French tonne) a cask. In Middle English this was commonly spelt, as in French, tonne; in 16–17th cent., more often tun; from c1688 the two spellings have been differentiated, tun being appropriated to the sense ‘cask’ and the liquid measure, and ton to the senses here treated, which, it will be seen, are partly measures, and partly weights

My question is essentially how a word with this origin came to have a colloquial meaning referring to one hundred of something, such as in OED definitions referring to 100 points in cricket or darts, or 100 pounds in money. The variants of this meaning are first attested from 1936 - 1962, where the 1962 attestation is the first under the definition:

In other miscellaneous colloq. uses to denote one hundred.

A ton can refer to a whole lot of different measurements, many of which are outlined on its Wikipedia page, and some of which are formally defined in the OED as well.

The second definition given in the OED (after "cask") mentions one meaning specifically referring to "100 cubic feet," so to some extent I wonder if the meanings referring to 100 in colloquial use in the 20th century have some relationship to the meaning referring to 100 cubic feet.

  1. A unit used in measuring the carrying capacity or burden of a ship, the amount of cargo, freight, etc. Originally, the space occupied by a tun cask of wine (see explanatory quot. 1894 on tight adj. and quot. 1539 here). Now, for the purposes of registered tonnage, the space of 100 cubic feet. For purposes of freight, usually the space of 40 cubic feet, unless that bulk would weigh more than 20 cwt., in which case freight is charged by weight. But the expression ‘ton of cargo’ is also used with regard to special packages which are conventionally assumed as going so many packages to the ton. Cf. also tonnage n.

This definition has attestations ranging from 1379 - 1867. The OED doesn't draw a direct connection between "Now... the space of 100 cubic feet" and the other definitions that refer to 100. Are they related, or is there a separate etymology for the later uses of "ton" referring to 100?

  • 1
    This source cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk/slang/ton says that in Cockney slang: a ton can mean £100 but it is also used to indicate 100 miles an hour. Example: "He did the ton down at Boxhill last Sunday". And the pound sterling was of course originally a weight measure. I don't know when this slang came into use (or how to research it). I myself haven't heard "ton" to mean 100 of anything; truck designations (e.g., 1/2 ton truck) refer (loosely, now) to load carrying capacity.
    – Xanne
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 7:03
  • 2
    I've never heard it used this way, either. Where did you actually run across this usage (other than in the dictionary)?
    – saritonin
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 22:10
  • 1
    @saritonin I haven't heard it used in speech either. I was researching an answer to another question and I came across a newspaper article with the phrase "do a ton" referring to a car driving "over 100 miles per hour." I hadn't heard that sense before so that brought me to the dictionaries. Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 22:20
  • 2
    From personal experience I can verify that a ton is in common use for 100 points in darts in the states as well as for 100 mph in motorcycling, as this wikipedia page explains. No clue on the origins, though.
    – Davo
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 16:16
  • 1
    UK native here - I have frequently heard "ton" used colloquially in the UK to mean 100mph or 100 GBP. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 2:18

3 Answers 3


The sources below, including The Patridge Dictionary of Slang, cite as first slang usage of ton meaning one hundred the amount of £100 from the first decades of the 20th century. From there, ton was applied to different contexts with the meaning of 100 (miles per hour, cricket etc.). The original usage of ton referring to £100 appears to be from Cockney Rhyming Slang, a word construction which relied both on phonetic but also on semantic links between words “in which case the person coining the slang term sees a semantic link, sometimes jocular, between the Cockney expression and its referent”.

£100 at that time were certainly “a large amount (tons)” of money and this possible semantic link with the “100 cubic feet” usage might have found its way into common speech.

From World Wide Words:

A ton is £100 (half a ton being therefore £50). This relates to a common usage in a number of contexts, for example, to do a ton is to achieve a speed of 100 miles per hour and in darts or cricket a ton is a score of 100. This is familiar enough not to seem an odd usage, even though ton is most commonly met with as a largish unit of weight.

Actually, all down its history it has been a measure of volume as well as weight, perhaps not surprisingly so because the word comes from tun, the name of a type of wine cask, which could be treated as either. For example, the registered capacity of a ship is measured in volume units, not weight, in which a ton is taken to be 100 cubic feet (this is probably the origin of ton meaning 100, but nobody seems to know for sure).

Also the Green’s Dictionary of Slang appears to support this assumption:

ton n.1

[SE ton, 100 cubic feet]

  1. [late 18C+] a very large (unspecified) amount; thus tons n.
  2. [late 19C; 1940s+] £100.
  3. [1950s+] 100 miles per hour; usu. as do a ton v., to drive at that speed.
  4. [1960s+] any unit of 100, e.g. 100 years, 100 runs (in cricket).
  • My understanding of Cockney Rhyming Slang has always been that a single word slang term in Rhyming Slang is the first word of a two word slang term where the second word rhymes with the real term, for example "the gal with the blonde barnet" (Barnet Fair = hair) and "take a butcher's at that" (Butcher's Hook = look). Are you suggesting that "ton" is a similar remnant of a phrase that rhymes with "hundred" or is it a piece of straight slang without a rhyming element (like boozer = public house)?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 13:04
  • @BoldBen - it could actually be both, but my assumption is a semantic link rather than a rhyming one.
    – user 66974
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 18:56

Speaking from my reasonably intact memory of the 1960s, we reserved the word ton for 100mph (outside of its proper meaning as 20cwt or 112lbs). If Fred had coaxed his Norton motor cycle to travel at 100mph along our first motorway (freeway), you might have heard some awestruck witness exclaim, "Blimey! Last night, Fred did a ton up the M1 on his Norton!" but otherwise, the British usage of the word, to mean £100 or in other non-standard contexts, was pretty much restricted to London and was rarely encountered in the rest of our green and pleasant land.

  • Sorry, 1960 isn't far back enough. According to the OED (quoted here), the ton=100 association goes back to at least 1936 (used in the context of darts).
    – Laurel
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 21:49
  • I'm sure the OED has it right, and I accept the ton=100 idea is now pretty ubiquitous. I commented not to claim when the myriad extended senses came into being, but just to say such usages were still virtually unheard of outside the south-east until much more recently—with the exception of the speed example I quoted.
    – Humboles
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 14:53
  • Still the case in the UK - Only two uses of 100 = "ton" in speech i've heard are the volume and as colloquial for 100 on the motorway (for example, I might say of someone overtaking me recklessly fast on the motorway "Blimy, he must be doing at least a ton"). I've heard of it being used for darts before as well, but the main meanings would be as weight or speed, with the latter being colloquial.
    – Miller86
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 11:08

This is slightly speculative in nature, trying to 'join the dots' from known facts to create a coherent narrative. Interestingly, it does seem that the Register ton might be the origin of using 'ton' to mean 100.

The etymology specifies the origin of the word to not just be from "cask" but from a specific measure/size of the cask.

From Etymology Online: "measure of weight," late 14c. The quantity necessary to fill a tun or cask of wine, thus identical to tun (q.v.). The spelling difference became firmly established 18c. Ton of bricks in the colloquial figurative sense of what you come down on someone like is from 1884.

This measure of wine has historically been roughly equivalent to 1000 liters in volume and around 1000 kgs in weight. As a unit of mass, the ton has always been used to refer to things in the 1000X range.

Very importantly, tuns (the cask) were also used as a measure of taxation of cargo ships. The modern word 'tonnage' is a measure of the cargo-carrying capacity of a ship and is used to assess fees on commercial shipping; historically it was the tax on 'tuns' of wine. Eventually, the decision was made that rather than assessing the tax based on the number of tuns the ship carried, it would be based on the overall capacity of the ship. This measuring of ship capacity was defined in 1854 in units of 'register tons' which was equivalent to 100 cu ft. 2

This is the only 'official' use of 'ton' as a measure which equates it to a 100 (of something). Collins Dictionary dates the use of the word 'ton' to mean 100s from the 20th century itself, so the 1936 usage of that meaning, does seem to be the earliest. Given that sources agree that this usage stems from cockney slang and that the cockney slang dates from after the definition of a register ton as 100 cu ft, it is possible to make the following leap in logic:

That the people who worked on the docks with ships, specifically the loading and unloading of cargo ships would be most familiar with the use of 'ton' to mean '100 (cu ft)' and hence the adoption of the word into slang would reflect this association and make it equivalent to '100 (of something)' rather than '1000' with which it is associated almost everywhere else.

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