I found the phrase, “a homeless man in New York with about two dollars to his name” in the New Yorker magazine’s article (November 29, 2011) titled “Politics of Dissolution.” It begins with the following sentence

“You can’t get much further apart on the socio-economic ladder that Peter Thiel and Ray Kachel. The former is a silicon Valley billionaire entrepreneur, venture capitalist with sharply conservative –libertarian views, the latter is, currently, a homeless man in New York City, with left-wing politics and about two dollars to his name.”

As I didn’t get the idea of a homeless man ‘with about two dollars to his name,’ I looked for its meaning on Google.

Wikipedia provides the definition of ‘two dollar’ simply as “the United States two-dollar bill is a current denomination of US currency. President Thomas Jefferson is featured on the obverse of the note.”

As a derivative phrase from ‘two dollars, only Urban Dictionary registers "two dollar scratchie" as; When you have a bitter break up or disagreement with your partner and their name becomes a non-speakable word, substitute it for "two dollar scratchie". If anyone says their actual name instead of the substituted "two dollar scratchie" - they gotta buy you one!

Neither of both definitions seems to be applicable to the above homeless man description.

What does “someone with two dollars with his (her) name” mean? Is it a popular phrase to mean a nameless person with no value attached to his or her name / being?

Can I apply ‘two dollars’ to any other insignificant articles or things than a person in the same way as ‘no worth for a dime’?

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    No, you cannot accept more than one answer. I know it's tough to decide sometimes. Just upvote every answer that helps to answer to question and accept the answer which you consider the most helpful, especially for future visitors who won't have the time to go through all the answers, but will need to have a quick, definite answer.
    – Frantisek
    Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 4:49
  • isn't the meaning rather obviously clear from the context? "You can’t get much further apart on the socio-economic ladder" -- here is a very rich man, and here is a very poor man. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 6:26
  • @RiMMer. Unless it looks the answer that doesn't make sense at all to me, I use to have given upvote to most of answers. Sometimes I'm warned not to click upvote twice. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 6:28
  • @Yoichi Oishi: I don't think two dollars is especially significant. It's probably a little more common than one dollar purely because two can be more easily preceded by about (the amount is almost never intended literally). The "set phrase" element is the whole thing - (something of) low value to his name*, where it's usually "dollar(s)" in the "positive", but often dime, cent, nickel, etc. in the "negative", as in "He hadn't got a nickel to his name". Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 17:08
  • @FumbleFingers. It seems my confusion started with my too much focus on a particular definition and amount of ‘two dollars’ and ignorance of the meaning of ‘to one’s name.’ I now understand the phrase in question simply means a homeless man with little money in his pocket. Commented Jan 3, 2012 at 0:40

5 Answers 5


Google shows over a hundred thousand references for the quoted phrase "two dollars to his name". Some of those references are bogus (e.g. two as part of thirty-two) but most of them that I looked at seem to entail the same meaning as in the subject quote: just about broke, having maybe a dollar bill or two, maybe some small change.

In short, "two dollars to his name" is an American colloquialism, a set phrase that indicates a person is financially busted.

As to the "nameless person with no value attached to his or her name / being" idea: No, as I understand the phrase it's entirely about financial status, and says nothing about the person's value or worth as a person. The phrase (as a whole) is not useful for other purposes than that, I think. Of course the two main parts of it (two dollar and to his name meaning, owned by him) are easily adapted. However, for terming something worthless, two cents is far more likely.

Here are a few examples from among the Google results mentioned above:

...he owned hundreds of acres of prime timber land but you couldn’t tell by looking at him that he had more than two dollars to his name. - Tim George, 2009
When he reached Pittsburg he had but two dollars to his name. - The Ariel, 1827
He wouldn't admit it to Jupiter, but he only had about two dollars to his name. - The Gun, O. C. Judd, 2000
He was a Russian immigrant who came to the United States in 1913 with two dollars to his name. - Barry Popik, 2005
With two dollars to his name, Ponzi emigrated from the U.S. to Canada... - ScoundrelsWiki, 2008
He had two dollars to his name, so one dollar went to pay for the marriage license and the other dollar went to pay the preacher. - Glenwood Resident Celebrates 99th Birthday, 2011

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    Sorry. If I have put 'parson,' it's my careless typo. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 3:11
  • Edit: Dropped out parson/person note Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 15:25
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    I can't really agree that "two dollars to his name" is a "set phrase". The actual unit can be [red] cent, dime, nickel, dollar, and the amount can be one, two, a couple, a few, etc. Or it might be just the clothes on his back or similar. The "set phrase" part of it is "to his name" - the antecedent varies widely according to the speaker and/or context. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 16:51
  • @FumbleFingers Have you reviewed the Google search results? I agree that the alternatives you mention exist and are used, but with respect to "two dollars to his name", there is notable frequency and surprising uniformity in usage; in short, a set phrase. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 17:14
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    Googling the whole Net seemed a bit of a chore, bearing in mind that even if you quotate the search term google only guesses the number of results based largely on the frequency of the individual words. I searched (quotated) in google books, where a dollar to his name gets 4810 hits. two dollars... gets 177, ten cents gets 77, a nickel 2040, etc. Star of the show is "a penny to his name" (usually, "without"), which gets 36,700 written instances. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 17:26

To one's name means in one's possession. The article is stating that Ray Kachel owns only two dollars. The use of two dollars in the quote is not idiomatic, it refers to a literal two dollars; to one's name can be used with other items (e.g. She has only a nickel to her name, or The only things he has to his name are the clothes on his back).

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    It's worth noting that to one's name doesn't necessarily imply physical possession, just ownership. The two dollars need not be in his pocket; they could be in a bank account. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 5:14

A partial answer: several years ago I recall reading about some places with laws that made it illegal to be poor and $2 was the figure quoted - if you don't have more than two dollars in your pocket you can be arrested. The reasoning given for the law was it gave the police the ability to take a drunk person off the streets, give them a meal/bath/bed for a night and the judge would typically release them the next morning. IIRC the article was about the demise of such laws.

  • I'm certainly not going to research this one, but I'm quite sure plenty of these anti-vagrancy laws will specify other amounts - one dollar, five dollars, whatever. The preference for "two" (if indeed there is one) probably turns on it simply being an obviously small number. Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 16:58
  • @FumbleFingers. I came across the following statement in lotrocommunity.com/forum by clicking the link word, anti-vagrancy law you suggested: “It's sort of like the anti-vagrancy law in the U.S. It let a peace officer arrest someone for not having at least one dollar on his person. Similarly ...” It seems to give a hint why the writer chose 'two dollars', not 'a penny, dime, or a dollar.' Commented Jan 3, 2012 at 2:39
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    @Yoichi Oishi: Dang! Now you've made me do the research after all! Thinking about it, I can't see how on earth such a law could even be passed, let alone enforced. The only reference is that wally in the lotrocommunity forum, and it's immediately dismissed by the next poster, I doubt this has ever been even a "town law" back in the Wild West, let alone a state law. An urban myth, methinks. Commented Jan 3, 2012 at 3:45
  • @FumbleFingers - I think I read the article in the early 90's, before the WWW and long before Google. Another approach for the OP is to email the author at the New Yorker and ask them. The articles (in the print edition) usually list an email address at the end. The short columns may not but could contact an editor. Given the New Yorker's famous fact checking policy (even the cartoons are fact checked) I'm sure someone there will know the answer.
    – jqa
    Commented Jan 3, 2012 at 16:28
  • @James: I guess I have to admit there's no law so stupid that someone, somewhen, somewhere in America hasn't enacted it. Though I'm sceptical of An Ilinois state law requiring a man's female companion to call him "master" while out on a date. Commented Jan 3, 2012 at 17:14

In the US, two dollars is a small sum of money, typically slightly less than the cost of a loaf of bread or carton of milk, what might be pocket change for many people. There's nothing special about the exact quantify of money listed in the expression, I think it's equally common to say that someone doesn't have "so much as a dollar to their name". In either case, the implication is extreme poverty, lacking the financial resources to get by, to the point where they may not even have enough money for their next meal. This would be extreme contrast to say, a millionaire with ample financial resources.

And as you presumed, neither of the definitions you found through Google have any relation to the expression in the original article.


The term actually derives from the tradition of putting two coins over the deceased eyes. Two pennies two his name suggest a person leaves this earth with nothing more. Of course the saying has changed over the years, and it's lost its original intent. The monetary unit has change leading people to think it's an economic context, but it's more spiritual than anything.

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