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So I was listening to a song (bülow - Own me), and there's this one line that I can't really understand. Which is "Got nothing but a twenty on me", and I can't really understand what it's supposed to really mean. You can do a quick google search for the full lyrics, but in context the verse is

Car chase, got the Devil on me
Can't see, got nothing but a twenty on me, on me
Nothing ever comes for free
You can pay what you want
But you're never gonna own me

Song is something about like the when guys try to flex their wealth on girls and chase them like this, but that she doesn't really care about that stuff.

I understand the expression to have a twenty on someone - which means to know their location. But it makes no sense in this context. And it kinda drives me mad right now. My common sense would say that she's just trying to say that she doesn't have that much money, but doesn't really care about it. Though I'm not at all sure about that - hence the question.

If it helps, she's from a Canadian descent, raised in Berlin.

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    'Have something on one': to be carrying something with one. "Have you got a pen on you, please?" see Farlex sense 3. Probably "I've only got $20 in total" rather than "I've no change, only a $20 bill'" here. Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 15:56
  • Yeah, that's my initial guess. But sometimes slang is not obvious, and this one is hard to reseach. If it is actual slang. Though it sounds like it. Like, the emphasis sounds like she's just saying that she doesn't have that much money (only a 20 on her).
    – Nuncy588
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 16:07
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    We've got into matters of opinion now, which often happens when lyrics, poetry etc are posted, and speculation is off-topic on ELU. You could try Writing.SE for interpretation of lyrics. Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 16:10
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    The line immediately following that line mentions "nothing ever comes for free." This sounds like it involves currency, rather than maybe e.g. a caliber of a gun. Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 16:48
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    You might be able to find out from the songwriter or singer
    – Peter
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 12:33

1 Answer 1

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The standard meaning of "to have a twenty on me" in U.S. idiomatic usage is "to have $20 in my possession"—technically in the form of a $20 bill, although more loosely in the sense of "money totaling $20." A Google Books search for the phrase "a twenty on me" across the period 1978–2019 yields nineteen unique matches in which the instance is verifiable and another twenty or so where it is not. In all of the verifiable instances, the meaning "$20" is either clearly correct or highly probable. Within that group of nineteen verifiable matches, fourteen involve versions of "have [or had or got] a twenty on me" occur multiple times. I quote those instances below.

From an unidentified story in StoryQuarterly, volumes 12–18 (1981[?]) [combined snippets]:

"He gave me his watch. I thought that was really generous, but it's not the first time people gave me things valuable like that. Once a man gave me a hundred dollar bill. He knew it was a hundred. He even said 'Here's a hundred, pal,' and that was more than twenty years ago. ...

"I don't have a hundred. Who carries a hundred on him these days? Maybe plenty do, but I only have a twenty on me, maybe less."

"I won't take twenty when I can get a hundred," the beggar says.

From Adolf E. Hieke & ‎Elsa Lattey, Using Idioms: Situationsbezogene Redensarten (1983) [combined snippets]:

  1. Look, Jane, when I left the house I had a twenty on me. Now I come back with a newspaper and some cigarettes and do you see what I have left? Thirteen dollars. I swear I was a) lured into a trap by that clerk b) taken in by that clerk c) beaten to a pulp d) in cahoots with that clerk

From an unidentified story in A Confederacy of Crime: New Stories of Southern-style Mystery (2002) [combined snippets]:

He polished the mug off in one long swallow, then lit a cigarette and motioned for another beer. I sipped my beer slowly; for one thing, I only had a twenty on me and that had to last for beer and smokes the rest of the week. The gas station wasn't doing too well, and cash was a little short.

From Patricia Hickman, The Touch (2002) [combined snippets]:

"Fred, what are you trying to do? You need to clean your glasses. I'll give you twenty dollars for this ring," she said.

"Doris, that ring isn't worth twenty."

"It is to me. I know my jewelry. I got a twenty on me. I'll buy it myself." Doris opened an old snap purse. She pulled a crisp twenty from a zipper pocket. She handed it to Sydney. "Sold."

From Ros Asquith, Love, Fifteen (2005) [snippet view]:

It's lucky I had a twenty on me.

It was £8.25p!

As the exact sum mentioned above indicates, this is a British instance of the expression and appears to refers to a £20 bank note. Evidently, the idiomatic usage of "a twenty on me" in reference to a certain amount of money is not exclusively North American.

From Jerry Osborne, Momentum (2006) [snippet view]:

"I don't have any American money on me," Rislee said. "Will they take Euro-dollars?"

"I'll pay everyone's way," Dylana said. "I have a twenty on me."

From Bobby Rose, Bama Sweetheart (2009):

"Yes, sir. Here, you dropped this money." I held out a twenty-dollar bill in my left hand.

"Oh no, I didn't have a twenty on me, son. It must be someone else's."

From Wayne Ashton, Under a Tin-Grey Sari: A Novel (2010):

The President immediately returned to the matter at hand. 'You have the photos?'

'Yes, sahib,' Khalid lied again. For he did not have the photos. And Zeythi had destroyed the film.

'Good fellow. Give the film and the photos to me, and perhaps I have a twenty on me.'

This novel is set in Chittagong, East Pakistan, in the 1960s, so it is not clear what currency is being discussed in this conversation.

From Laura Bentz, The Land of Efacia: On the Planet Zemora (2012):

"Ah asked 'er if she had change for a twenty and she claimed to not have any money wit' 'er.

Ah made an excuse up. Ah told 'er ah'd have to get change to pay her an' that ah only had a twenty on me. Ah told her this jus' to git 'er off my back.

From Tim Dale, Safe Travels: Run for Your Lives (2015):

I walked inside and ordered some food. Irwin's the one that served me. I only had a twenty on me, and since no one around here takes paper money, especially when it's from a different planet, I had no coin to offer. So he offered me a job to pay it off. He was very nice to me. That's it.

From D.M. Richardson, Power Play (2015):

"Hey," he stumbled on his words, unsure of how to approach me. His greeting was almost conversational. "So I was wondering what your going rate was? I only have a twenty on me, think that's enough to get me behind the English building?” he winced at his own words. Though he had succeeded in achieving his unique insult.

From David Cope, Where Thunder Sleeps: A Novel (2016):

Then she surprised me again. She asked what I thought the meal was worth. Not sure I'd heard her right, I told her that it was worth 'every penny.'

She smiled then, and asked me how much money I had. That being a stranger question than the previous one, I told her that I had a twenty on me, and could get more if that were not enough.

She screwed up her face for a few seconds, and then told me that my twenty was much too much, and would I think her asking for five dollars be an inconvenience.

From Sophia Beaumont, "The Ten of Cups," in Night Wars Collection (2016):

"Sure, this way. Basic [tarot] reading is fifteen, in depth is twenty-five. I also do numerology, but that's extra. And of course, all of this is just entertainment only." She gave me a wink that said she was probably required to say that.

We went behind the curtain. I only had a twenty on me, so we started with that.

From Tamia Gore-Felton, Headaches & Heartbreaks: Facing Reality Hurts (2018):

"Twenty bucks for a late fee?" he stammered.

...

"Well check this Miss. Lady. I don't have a twenty on me at the moment."


Conclusions

As I noted fourteen of the nineteen verifiable matches for "a twenty on me" involve instances of "have [or had or got] a twenty on me," and all seem to use "a twenty" in the sense of "$20" (or in one case "£20"). The other five instances are a bit slangier but also involve "a twenty" in the sense of "$20":

I was finally faced with the inevitable—the return to Room 316 at the Geronimo. Barry laid a twenty on me and dropped me off. {From Scott Frank, Tales from the Geronimo: My Seduction by Junk and Desert Dreams (1996)}

...she would almost beg some of them, not so much for a date, but 'would they cruise by the lobby of my building and drop a twenty on me?' {From From the Mouth of the Monster: The Joel Rifkin Story (2001)}

Her last words still rang in Malik's ears, "Take the brat, Mark Cutler, but you could at least lay a twenty on me." {From Edwina Martin-Arnold, House Guest (2006)}

"Dropped a twenty on me coming off fourteen green. He was good stuff, even without the tip." {From Tripp Bowden, Freddie & Me: Life Lessons from Freddie Bennett, Augusta National's Legendary Caddy Master (2011)}

He was too full of his own importance to lay a twenty on me. [From Ted Wood, Dead in the Water (2014)]

Although these five instances are less obviously about money than the instances of "have a twenty on me" cited earlier, all of them make sense when read in that sense.

When an idiom is as well established and consistently applied as "have [or had or got] a twenty on me" is in a particular sense ("am in possession of $20"), it seems reasonable to treat that meaning as the probable intended one in the absence of specific contextual details that suggest a contrary meaning. In the case of the posted question here, I see no reason to go prospecting for meanings other than the default one for the phrase "got nothing but a twenty on me."

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  • It seems worth mentioning that for someone "to have a (denomination of bill) on them" is ɴᴏᴛ somehow "slang" as the asker incorrectly suggested it was. It's a perfectly common construction for that context; notice the results for "a five on me" and the like for other denominations. Arguably to have a fiver on me ᴍɪɢʜᴛ be slang, as might to have a couple ten-spots on me also be. But those are completely transparent, and so barely count. Far better would be to have a double sawbuck on me to mean the same thing: ᴛʜᴀᴛ one is certainly slang, and it has its own interesting history.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 3:11
  • A twenty is a twenty-dollar bill "in one piece"; not two tens, or a ten, a five, and five ones.
    – bof
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 7:34

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