43

Before you answer, please note: I'm only interested in when this usage was established in common (American) parlance. I know what the term means and I don't need it defined, nor do I require an etymology as to its origins.

That said, most of us probably already know that "a buck" in AmE is a slang expression referring to a dollar. As Etymonline notes:

buck (n.2)
"dollar," 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin as a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days (attested from 1748).

But for most of my life I've been aware that "buck" can be used broadly in the sense of 100 of something, especially when that something involves weight and money.

He goes about a buck forty sopping wet. (Meaning: He weighs about 140 pounds at his heaviest.)

She says she's making a buck eighty in her new job. (Meaning: She says her salary is $180,000 a year in her new job.)

Note, however, that we never hear multiples of this, like "four bucks" to mean 400. And the usage always seems to involve a number between 100 and 200: "a buck fifty" and so forth (the term seems to be wedded to the indefinite article: "a buck something").

It's obvious where the 100 comes from: a dollar represents 100 cents. I'm just wondering when this particular usage crept into the lexicon.

Addendum

This question on EL&U demonstrates that responses involving "I've never heard that usage before" may mean this could be a regional usage, but not a non-existent one.

Azor Ahai adds this corroboration:

He cites Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, as an example: “He looks massive when he’s walking out of the water in the beach, but he’s just shredded,” he says, guessing the actor is “a buck 70,” or 170 pounds in gymspeak. (Vanity Fair)

Full disclosure

I know this must date from at least the early '70s because of the following:

In my first job out of college (1974) my boss used to corrupt this usage in what he thought was a humorous way. For example, "We were going down the Dan Ryan at 3:00 a.m., must've been doing a buck two-eighty." I remember it because it used to annoy the hell out of me that he wouldn't give a "real" number in that context. I conclude from this that if the usage could be teased and played with at this point, it must have been extant for some time.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Sep 20 '18 at 11:04
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    Not an answer, but possibly related -- Nixon's national 55 mph speed limit of the 70s-80s was at least sometimes referred to as "the double nickel"... – jkf Sep 21 '18 at 4:21
  • Perhaps the eleven (!) answers that have been collected so far could be combined into a community wiki, since that is basically what's happening here anyway? – MetaEd Sep 26 '18 at 18:14
  • @MetaEd: I don't think an intervention is called for. – Robusto Sep 26 '18 at 19:11

11 Answers 11

28

1971 - Non-Money Related

Sorry, @Mary-LouA, but I've got one from a year before your 1972 citation, and it's not monetary. This also fits with the OP's 1974 recollections involving speed and its measurement.

Here's an example of someone using "a buck" to mean 100 miles per hour. It's from May or June 1971. The reference is the Arlington High School Yearbook, 1971. Specifically, it's from one of the "self-blurbs" that kids are allowed to put in the margins. There is the girl's name, her address, (I assume) her birth date, and then her note,

NOREEN PAICE, 52 Aberdeen Rd. 10/14/53 Hate matrons [;] happiness is doing a buck ten on Jimmy's CH

"CH" refers to a motorcycle, such as this 1959 Harley Davidson Sportster CH Motorcycle. The best "expansion" of the initialism that I could find was from this Quora post, where Dave Butler gives,

C - Competition. The idea was this bike could be ridden off the road, onto a dirt track, and race. I’d be interested to know [how] that went.
H - High performance.
I’ve heard it said the C means California, and the H means Hot. I’m not a believer.

On the same thread, Marc Whinery says,

CH=kick start

but I'm not as impressed with his supporting arguments.


We can drive our "first earlier known appearance" date (for non-monetary use) back to 5 September 1985 with another baseball reference, @called2voyage. The article is in the San Bernadino Sun (p.34), the article is titled Downing drives Angels past Tigers, and the quote is,

"The stat sheets (which showed him hitting .362 in his last 33 games) are a little misleading," Downing said. "The last two weeks I've only been hitting about .150.

"Actually, when Detroit was in our place (late last month) they kind of cooled me off. The Tigers have kind of cooled me all season, to tell the truth. I'm only hitting about a buck (.100) against them, so it was especially nice to break out of it here."


Here is some data-driven analysis from Google Ngrams.

At this link you'll find a graph showing the usage, as found in Google Books, of the following:

a buck twenty
a buck thirty
a buck forty
a buck fifty
a buck sixty
a buck seventy
a buck eighty
a buck ninety

The first monetary usage from this corpus was from 1922:

The Emerald of Sigma Pi - Volume 8, Issue 4 - Page 248

1922 - ‎Read - ‎More editions Dear Brother Barr: Enclosed you will find a check for the necessary $1.50, for which please insure me against losing track of all the latest dope on old Sigma Pi for another year. Believe me, if a buck fifty ever slid out of jeans as willingly as this I ...

This isn't the question, though it does show how we can get an answer to this question and see trends. It doesn't catch the usages in 1748 or 1856 noted by the OP, but it's a start.

I must note that literary usage tags behind colloquial usage, most likely more so in 1922 than in the 1990s.

I further narrowed it down with such things as "weighed a buck {-ty}", "went a buck {-ty}" and other similar prepended words. To start, I didn't add the number represented by {-ty}.

The full list of what I tried is below. I think that the most interesting chart, and the one that shows the best usage over time as well as possible starting date, is for "about a buck fifty". Without any rigorous analysis, it looks like the date we're looking for is sometime in the 1970s.

"about"; "weigh", "weighs", "weighed", "weighing", "go", "goes", "went", "going" "do", "does", "did", "doing", "drive", "drives", "drove", "driving", "hit", "hits", "hitting", "bowl", "bowls", "bowled", "bowling", "than", "at least"

P.S. Here is the most interesting usage I found.

Locked Up but Not Locked Down: A Guide to Surviving the American [Prison System]

Ahmariah Jackson, ‎IAtomic Seven, ‎Supreme Understanding - 2011 - ‎Preview

Catching a Buck 50: A “rip” or “Buck 50” is when you get your face slashed by a razor and your cheek opens up like you've got a second mouth. The name “buck fifty” came from the number of stitches usually required for such a wound (150).

The same usage appears in this book, as well as this other one. In the latter, it's used in a poem,

...
And shorties with quick tongues
Who threw disses or spit blades
That left a crescent across your face.
A Buck 50
Taped Up
Shaped up
...

-Patty Dukes

Note the capitalization in "A Buck 50".

This more contemporary (early 21st century) usage is further expounded by user isaiahrobinson on this StraightDope thread:

In West Coast gang culture putting "a buck fifty" across someone's face means cutting them right down across the face with a razor, often from the ear to the corner of the mounth, leaving a scar. The guy who plays Omar Little in [T]he Wire, Michael K. Williams, has a buck fifty scar across his face as shown in this photo. I don't know if that usage is even remotely relevant but I thought I'd mention it...

The link is dead, but I found this picture of Michael K. Williams on a page about celebrity scars.

  • Nice catch on the earlier baseball reference. – called2voyage Sep 19 '18 at 18:57
  • I've pushed it back to 1982 now. – called2voyage Sep 19 '18 at 19:35
  • Nice. Let's keep it going! – bballdave025 Sep 19 '18 at 20:09
  • Good work, @bballdave. Welcome to EL&U. – Robusto Oct 7 '18 at 22:12
  • I'm enjoying it here, @Robusto . I very much appreciate the welcome. – bballdave025 Oct 8 '18 at 16:44
19

1973

  1. one hundred dollars; a bet of one hundred dollars
    He'd go a buck and a half apiece for as many as I could get…

The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English (link)

Here is the novel where the phrase is taken from, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, published 1972

  • 2
    Sorry, but does “a buck and a half” refer to money? – user240918 Sep 19 '18 at 14:39
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    +1 Nice. I see this as evidence of the metaphorical extension I referenced elsewhere. This usage is not literal even though it refers to money. – Robusto Sep 19 '18 at 15:52
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    Buck - 3. [1940s+] (US) $100; thus half-buck, $50; buck-and-a-half $150. greensdictofslang.com/entry/zwumu2q – user240918 Sep 19 '18 at 17:42
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    This is a monetary reference? Why is it being mentioned? The entire raison d'etre of the question is the modern non-monetary use. Strange. – Fattie Sep 20 '18 at 6:19
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    Good answer, and not strange at all. The question is asking about usage of 'buck' to mean 'a unit of one hundred', rather than specifically 'one hundred cents'. Your example is monetary, yes, but this is not excluded by the question. – Christian Palmer Sep 20 '18 at 11:11
14

Wiktionary cites two main non-monetary usages; speed and weight.

Buck:

(US, slang) One hundred.

  • The police caught me driving a buck forty on the freeway.
  • That skinny guy? C'mon, he can't weigh more than a buck and a quarter.

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang the non-monetary usages are relatively recent:

Buck:

  1. [1990s+] 100, in non-monetary contexts.

and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English cites usage in motor racing from the ‘90s.

  • in motor racing: 100 miles per hour (US) John Edward Auto Dictionary 1993
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Sep 21 '18 at 17:25
11

COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) has four instances of "a buck eighty", and three of them refer to weight. However, they are from 2003 and 2013. COHA (Corpus of Historical American English) has only one older, from 1971; but that is the normal money sense.

iWeb has 15 examples, of which 3 are weight, and 2 are other non-money contexts (a bowling score, and a speed).

So, no, I'm afraid I can't tell you when this use arose, but I can confirm it exists, and seems to be a trifle more common in recent years.

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    It's very informal so I'm not surprised it doesn't appear much in written literature. – Kevin Sep 18 '18 at 18:03
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    Eddie Murphy Raw (1987) - speaking of Michael Jackson “Mike don’t weigh but a buck o five”. – James Sep 18 '18 at 19:32
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    On the TV show "American Pickers", the guys sometimes pick from and negotiate with "old timers" who use "buck" to mean units of 100, where "a buck fifty" means $150.00 not $1.50. IIRC, they are picking in rural areas of the New England region and/or the South when these folks are encountered. Due to the age of (not the Pickers but) the Pickees, I suspect first usage dates from before WWII, possibly before WWI. – geneSummons Sep 18 '18 at 21:12
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    @geneSummons that doesn't sound like quite the same usage, since it's still referring to money. It's very common, for example, for American English speakers to say a car "costs about thirty" and it be understood that "thirty" means "thirty thousand." – Justin Lardinois Sep 18 '18 at 22:25
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    @JustinLardinois: I think it's the same usage, since it's a departure from the literal meaning of "a buck" as 100 cents when the intended meaning here is 100 dollars. – Robusto Sep 19 '18 at 12:45
9

I'm sure that there's an even earlier example, but I can beat Collin Fine's 2003 example. Here's an example from 1993:

"They don't usually put full-figured women on TV," she points out. "But I look like more American women than people who weigh a buck-oh-five" -- her stepfather's slang for 105 pounds.
Star Jones, Shining Through

And from 1998:

We all know your about a buck ten, soaking wet in a parka, come off it
Canibus :: Can-I-Bus :: Universal
as reviewed by DJ Fatboy

And 2000:

Think about it- your going a buck ninety and your oil filter blows apart at the crimp.
Reply to what fram oil filter do i use for my Busa?

Also, I found examples for 2001 and 2002.

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    Yep, Motorcycle speed is really the only time I have heard this. Never owned the Busa, But my old Katana F could manage a buck 60. I wonder if it is just an Americanism from the British ton up boys. Found a 1992 usage in Cycle World magazine (middle column) – Phil Sweet Sep 19 '18 at 1:40
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    Interesting point on your examples: "190" becomes "a buck 90", "110" becomes "a buck ten", but "105" becomes "a buck-oh-five" - it seems that "buck" is being used as "one", not "hundred" ("...you're going one-ninety.." / "..you're about one-ten, soaking wet..") – Chronocidal Sep 19 '18 at 8:32
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    @Chronocidal Meh; probably just a by-product of time telling mannerisms. If it's 1:05 PM and I ask you for the time then replying It's one-five PM seems a bit off... However, I wouldn't be too thrown off if someone said I weigh a buck-five – MonkeyZeus Sep 19 '18 at 12:48
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    @Chronocidal Same deal for currency. Your total is one-o-five. is a lot less ambiguous than Your total is one-five because it would cause you to think Well, is it one dollar or five dollars? – MonkeyZeus Sep 19 '18 at 12:55
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    @Chronocidal, more precisely, it seems that "buck" is being used to refer to "one" in the hundreds place, since it isn't replacing one in any other position. – Joe Sep 19 '18 at 19:31
7

To complement Mari-Lou A's answer, which I don't think should be discounted just because it is a monetary usage, here is the earliest non-monetary usage of a buck that I could find:

I was hitting about a buck-twenty [.120] in June when our manager, Frank Lucchesi [in his first big league job], came up to me and said he didn't care what I hit, I was his shortstop.

-- Larry Bowa in "Padre with a Passion" by Ron Fimrite from the May 4, 1987 issue of Sports Illustrated

UPDATE: Inspired by another answer to dig through newspapers, I was able to reach back even further:

I was hitting about a buck-eighty

-- in April 1, 1982 issue of Syracuse Post Standard

  • Worth noting that Bowa's career in baseball started in 1970, so it is possible the expression dates back to then. Of course, he could have picked up the expression along the way, so I haven't added this to the answer. – called2voyage Sep 19 '18 at 15:06
  • Nice work. Let's see how early it was used in baseball. – bballdave025 Sep 19 '18 at 20:09
  • Someone should be able to find a fairly early boxing reference, something like, "And in the other corner, weighing in at a buck seventeen, was..." – bballdave025 Sep 19 '18 at 22:30
7

A Buck Two (or Three) Eighty

1944 - non-monetary, an ordinal number, but "dollar" not "buck"

Jazz composer Stan Kenton had a song titled “Opus a dollar three-eighty” in 1944.


This answer is about your boss's "a buck two eighty".

There is a 1980 Billy Joel song, Close to the Borderline, with the lines

A buck three eighty
Won't buy you much lately on the street these days

It seems as if this combination, with regards to an undetermined amount of money, was somewhat common and had quite a history. I'm assuming your boss expanded it for use with the non-monetary "buck" that is being discussed here.

Google Books has its earliest hit with "a buck two eighty" in 1977:

Enthusiast - Page 26

1977 - ‎Snippet view - ‎More editions
... sometimes confused computer, has been up to more shenanigans than usual, of late, for which he sincerely apologizes and says it won't happen again (although if we were gamblers, we wouldn't place more than a buck-two-eighty on it).

There's an online forum (specifically, StraightDope) where someone with the username, Gary_T, gives an interesting take on the phrase.

The way to say 183 in German (translated, of course) is "one hundred three and eighty." Whether this is true for other languages, I don't know, but's[sic] it's not hard to imagine an immigrant who has learned the English words but still uses the idomatic[sic] word order of his native tongue. From there it's a small step to saying "a dollar three eighty" or "a buck three eighty" when referring to $1.83.
Naturally, this would sound odd to a native English speaker, maybe even nonsensical. Human nature being what it is, people would make fun of it, even exaggerating the nonsensical aspect by expanding it to "a buck three eighty two."

I have no documentation (yet) for the evolution of this phrase, but it's interesting. Yet another forum also talks about the foreign-language idea. This quote feels rather meta...

[I found] this link...
http://pub122.ezboard.com/fwordoriginsorgfrm9.showMessage?topicID=27.topic
Which states... "I am reminded that there is a usage here in Wisconsin -- I've been told it's local to the Manitowoc-Two Rivers area -- "a buck two-eighty."
It also says "I first heard this in New Hampshire. It was meant to be a slur on the French on the Northern border. Said in a French accent, "I'm goin down to ze fak toor ee to work for a buck sree eighty an our-where." So, based of what I have read, it looks to be of American origin. One of those lovley[sic] little sayings a witty person made up.
Hope that takes care of it for you...

Though the literally-translated French (from France) number, 183, would be "hundred four twenty three", the same idea is there.

There's a reference in another StraightDope forum where user Beruang wrote

Chicago. High school. Mid-'70s. "A buck three-eighty" was commonplace. As you have noted, it's basically a brush-off, meaning "I dunno, a small amount, what's it to ya?" As teenagers, we considered it the height of wit. As adults, we consider it the height of teenage wit.

and a guest user wrote

I've never heard "a buck three-eighty." Around here, we use "a nickel ninety-five" to mean the same thing, a small amount of money.

From another online discussion, it seems we can trace this usage further back if we're willing to settle for "dollar" instead of "buck".

“A dollar-three-eighty”
"A dollar three-eighty” means a small (or unknown) amount, given in a nonsense language. The term appears in the Texas Crude (1984) slang collection and it has been described (below) as “a weary old East Texas joke,” but the origin is unknown. Jazz composer Stan Kenton had a song titled “Opus a dollar three-eighty” in 1944. The term appears to date to at least 1931.

Interestingly, we have a non-monetary usage here in 1944

This discussion has references to the "dollar" version in 1949, 1959, and 1969, then

4 May 1972, Clearfield (PA) Progress, pg. 4, col. 6:
Mac’s all sold out of those rotary birdbaths but now he’s pushing electric water wings. They cost a nickle (sic) ninety-eight, less batteries, which are a buck three-eighty apiece.

then "dollar" references again in 1984, 2009, and 2010.

The same site refers to Google Books, Xi Psi Phi Quarterly, Volume 29 from 1930, where one can see a snippet reading

... the boys and he reported he was short-changed to the amount of a dollar-three-eighty. That's all right Bill we are in belief we have an honest treasurer who will make amends. ...

link link link

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    Interesting. Then perhaps he was using it incorrectly, or amalgamation the two contexts? – Robusto Sep 19 '18 at 21:59
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    Definitely an incorrect usage. No, I'm just kidding. I think your boss was making, as you said, an "amalgamation of the two contexts." – bballdave025 Sep 19 '18 at 22:18
6

With regard to the earliest occurrences of buck in the general, nonmonetary sense of 100, J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) finds instances going back to 1983:

buck n, ... 2. ... e. Broadly, one hundred of anything, as points of a batting average or pounds of weight. [Cited examples:] 1983 L. Frank Hardball 12: A player who has a batting average of .150 is often said to be "hitting a buck-fifty" 1984 R. Jackson, in N.Y. Post (Aug 21) 72: They put up with me last year when I couldn't hit a buck ninety. 1993 N.Y. Times (Mar. 3) B 17: Kenny weighs about a buck-60.

Paul Dickson, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (1989) confirms that use of "buck" in the sense of a one-hundred-point batting average was fairly widespread in baseball by 1989:

buck-fifty n./adj. Batting average of around .150—as in "He's batting about a buck-fifty."

I wouldn't be at all surprised if using buck to mean "one hundred" in a general sense that is applicable to various units of measure (such as "100 miles per hour" in your example) goes back to the 1970s, but documenting first occurrences of U.S. slang from about 1930 onward is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, almost all of the content still under copyright in the incredibly rich troves of U.S. newspapers maintained at newspaper databases (such as the one at Library of Congress) is inaccessible to the public for free searches. Newspaper sources from the past 90 years tend to be limited to college newspapers and a few small-town newspapers).

3

I remember hearing this from Denzel Washington's character Robert McCall in the movie The Equalizer (2014). He referred to his weight as a "buck-ninety", as 190 pounds. He mentions this to another character earlier in the film, and the same character says this quote in reference to the earlier conversation later on: (the actual quote has explicit words)

1

1790s?

According to this site, it goes back to the 1790s when Deer skins (buck skins) were used as currency for trading. I have not independently verified their thoughts.

https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/heres-why-dollars-are-called-bucks#

  • Nice work, @StevenMastandrea. Do you have any links to the source used to verify their thoughts? – bballdave025 Sep 21 '18 at 21:51
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    Sorry, I meant to say I have not independently verified their thoughts. I changed the answer. – Steven Mastandrea Sep 21 '18 at 22:38
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    The OP is not asking about the etymology of the term buck, this has been probably answered elsewhere on the site, the question is about when "a buck" (a single dollar) was used to represent a hundred something e.g, 100 dollars/pounds/miles/runs. – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '18 at 3:35
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-5

Personally, I don't recall ever hearing "buck" used to mean 100 of anything other than cents. I don't think this is a common usage.

Yeah, I suppose if I heard someone say, "He weighs a buck forty", I'd figure out they meant 140 pounds. But I've never heard anyone say that, and I think my first response would be, "What? What do you mean? He weights $1.40?"

When I read, "She's making a buck eighty in her new job", I took that to mean, she makes $1.80 an hour.

I suppose the weight example could be a metaphor of sorts.

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=bucks has lots of obscure slang terms that I never heard of, and they don't mention this "100 of anything" usage.

It's certainly possible that this is a common usage in some region or subculture that I am unfamiliar with.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Sep 20 '18 at 11:03

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