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A question about the origin of the phrase __ cents on the dollar already exists on this site, but that question was interpreted by the answerers as a request for a relatively simple explanation of its meaning, and the OP accepted one such explanation. The answers posted there consequently do not really come to grips with the puzzling nature of this expression. In asking a new question about its origin, I am expressly seeking an explanation of the following two puzzling aspects of it, which were not addressed in the answers to the earlier question.

(1) How did the preposition on find its way into this phrase? In other words, how is the meaning of on in __ cents on the dollar related to any of the senses that this preposition has otherwise? It would seem that for would make much more sense here (it would be easy to understand how, say, ’60 cents for a dollar’ could be an abbreviated form of ’60 cents for what would normally be worth a dollar’). Somebody who first hears the phrase on the dollar, without realising that it is an idiom could, extrapolating from the usual meaning of on, easily think that it means ‘on top of the dollar that one has to pay anyway’, and thus believe that paying 60 cents on the dollar means paying $1.60 for what would otherwise be worth a dollar.

(2) Why the dollar rather than a dollar? Usually when it is said that somebody is paying 60 cents on the dollar, a large total amount is, in fact, involved; one is paying 60 cents for each of the many dollars of the original value. So what is the dollar that this phrase refers to?

(I am not asking for the timeline of the introduction of this phrase into the language, except in so far as it may throw light on (1) and (2).)

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  • ell.stackexchange.com/questions/22647/… This seems to be helpful for (2). Essentially, "dollar" is a generalized concept, not a particular (though yet to be identified) dollar. Nov 11, 2021 at 20:01
  • Agreed, 2) might be the same usage as "the dollar is falling." About 1), the origins might be important as it seems the phrase is used for investments as well as purchase ("X will get you 10 cents on the dollar"), where we already use "on" in "a return on your investment" Nov 11, 2021 at 20:15
  • Whatever the origins, they're quite early; here's a result from 1795 and one (with a slightly different construction, but surely related) from 1701 Nov 11, 2021 at 20:21
  • Exchange rates were quoted on the Dollar, on the Guilder, e.g. 1696, as were bankruptcy sales.
    – DjinTonic
    Nov 11, 2021 at 20:21
  • 1
    Percent means division: X over 100. Picture that percent, proportion, and division have the numerator on top of the denominator. Why the dollar? That's the original value before purchase discounts apply. Could see on as a borrow word ... Arab traders? Al is Hebrew for on and Arabic for the. There you'd have on the in one! Nov 11, 2021 at 22:47

1 Answer 1

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My answer attempts to answer the question asked in the title of this question—"What is the origin of '__ cents on the dollar'?" by focusing on its historical success as against the corresponding phrase containing any of five alternative prepositions: for, in, of, to, or upon. I will not attempt to address the preference for "the dollar" over "a dollar" in the expression, or the logic of referring to cents on (or for or in or of or to or upon) the dollar. On the latter issue, I note that "cents out of the dollar" makes as much intuitive sense as any of the six options tracked here, and yet it doesn't yield any matches in a Google Books search until 1855, by which time "cents on the dollar" was thoroughly established as the standard U.S. idiomatic wording.

I ran a Google Ngram search to track the frequency of occurrence of "cents on the dollar" (blue line) vs. "cents to the dollar" (red line) vs. "cent for the dollar" (green line) vs. "cents in the dollar" (yellow line) vs. "cents upon the dollar" (teal line) for the period 1780–1860. (I couldn't include the plot line for "cents of the dollar" because adding that search term exceeded the space available for in the Ngram word search window, but the result for it at this scale is essentially a flat line, as it is for "cents for the dollar.") Here is the resulting Ngram chart:

This chart suggests that (1) all six expressions appeared in print at least occasionally during this period, (2) "cents to the dollar" briefly offered "cents on the dollar" a run for the money in the late 1810s and early 1820s, before the popularity of the latter roared out of sight, and (3) "cents in the dollar" was an even more popular alternative although it began to lag by the late 1820s.

Checking the underlying matches for some of the early line graph activity in the Ngram chart, I turned up these examples of how the different phrases were used.


'cents for the dollar'

From a letter from the Auditor, Treasurer, and Secretary of State of Ohio, entered in to the record for Thursday, December 16, 1824 in Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Ohio, volume 23 (1824):

That public notice was given in the Gazette, that the paper would be sold at public vendue, on a day named, in August last, to the highest bidder, for cash; that the terms of the sale as then proclaimed, were, that the paper should be sold without reserve, (thirty three and one third cents having been offered for the whole) the state reserving no bid. That no bid would be received less than 1-4 of a cent upon the dollar, and that the first declared purchaser might elect to take the whole or any less amount, exceeding five hundred dollars. That the paper was knocked down at thirty seven and three quarter cents, for the dollar, and the purchaser who had previously contracted, as herein before mentioned, electing to take the whole.

From "Summary," in the [New York] Telescope (October 1, 1825):

New Haven, Sept. 24[.] The first article of news that our readers will probably look for, will be concerning the Eagle Bank. We have in short to say, that the Bank has suspended specie payments[.] The bills of the bank however, we understand, have thus far been taken in payment of notes due the bank as they become payable from individuals. We pretend not to say, or even guess, how the concerns of the institution will come out eventually. Rumours, of which we have plenty, are hardly worth repeating, and we wait to be in possession of facts that can be relied upon before we hazard an opinion of our own. The bills were selling yesterday at from 87½ to 90 cents for a dollar ; the day before yesterday, sales were made in town at about 75 cents for the dollar. Several stores take the bills at par for goods, at the current prices.

And from "Bank of the United States, &c." in Niles' Weekly Register (August 18, 1832):

So hard pushed was the general government for ways and means to defend our country, invaded or threatened at different points, that many of these loans were contracted for at rates much below par—some at less than 90 cents in the dollar,* though the money loaned was in paper of banks not paying their own debts!

*One large loan, I believe, at eighty cents for the dollar!


'cents in the dollar'

From "A Law for the Relief of the Poor," in Laws of the Territory of the United States North-west of the Ohio (1796):

It shall and may be lawful to and for the overseers of the poor, of the several townships, having first obtained the approbation of any two justices of the peace in the same county, to make and lay a rate, or assessment, not exceeding two cents, in the dollar, on the estimated value of all the real and personal estates within the said townships, respectively, at one time, and seventy five cents per head, on every freeman not otherwise rated for his estate, in every tax of two cents in the dollar; ad so in proportion for any less rate of assessment: which said assessments may be repeated, by the authority aforesaid, as often, in one year, as shall be found necessary for the support of the poor ; to be employed in providing proper houses and places, and a convenient stock of hemp, flax, thread, and other ware and stuff, for setting to work such poor persons, as apply for relief, and are capable of working ; and also for relieving such poor, old, blind, impotent and lame persons, or other persons not able to work, within the said townships, respectively ; who shall therewith be maintained and provided for.

From "Order for a Further Dividend" [template], in Thomas Cooper, The Bankrupt Law of America: Compared with the Bankrupt Law of England (1801):

... and it appearing to us that by an order of dividend made, etc. the assignees under the said commission admitted, that they had sufficient money in their hands, to pay all the creditors of the said bankrupt, who had proved or claimed debts under the said commission, the sum of (—) cents in the dollar, for every dollar so proved or claimed; the said commissioners did therefore, pursuant to the said admission, and at the desire of the creditors, order and direct that the assignees should pay and divide unto and amongst all and every the creditors of the said bankrupt, who had proved their claims, and unto the claimants, when they should have proved their claims under the said commission, the sum of (—) cents in the dollar, in proportion to their several and respective debts; and it being admitted by the said assignees, that they have now sufficient money in their hands, to pay all the creditors not included in the former dividend, and who have at this sitting proved their debts under the said commission, the like dividend of (—) cents in the dollar, upon their several and respective debts, and also sufficient to pay all the creditors of the said bankrupt, who have already proved or claimed debts under the said commission, the further sum of (—) cents in the dollar, over and above the sum of (—) cents in the dollar, already divided under the said commission, for every dollar so proved or claimed.

From "An Act for Giving Relief in Case of Insolvency" (passed on April 3, 1801) and "An Act Relative to the Indians" (passed on April 4, 1801), reprinted in Laws of the State of New York, volume 1 (1802):

And be it further enacted, That every insolvent who shall be discharged by virtue of this act, and in all things conform to the directions thereof, shall be allowed the sum of five per cent on the nett produce of all his estate that shall be recovered or received by the said assignee or assignees, to be paid to him by such assignee or assignees, in case the nett produce of the said estate, after such allowance made, shall be sufficient to pay the creditors of such insolvent who shall prove their debts in the manner directed by this act, the sum of seventy cents in the dollar, and so as the said five per cent shall not amount in the whole above the sum of five hundred dollars.

...

And be it further enacted, That the marshals to be chosen in Brothertown as aforesaid shall have the like powers and authority as constables of other towns in this state have by law in their towns, and shall be entitled to twelve and a half cents for serving an execution for any sum not exceeding two dollars and fifty cents, and at the rate of ten cents in the dollar for serving every execution for any sum above two dollars and fifty cents.

And from James Gibbons, Dilworth's Assistant, Adapted to the Commerce of the United States third edition (1810):

14. A person owes 1234 dollars, but not being able to pay the whole, compounds with his creditors to pay them 57 cents in the dollar, how much money doth he pay his creditors? Ans. 703 dollars 38 cts.


'cents of the dollar'

From "Claims Against France," in Niles' Weekly Register (March 20, 1830):

The bill lately reported to the senate in relation to those claims is the same as that reported last year, except that the amount then proposed to be paid was only two millions of dollars,—now five. The bill provides for the appointment of a board of commissioners to examine the claims and divide the money among those found to be just. The five millions, it is said, will not pay more than 50 cents of the dollar of such claims, without allowance for interest. The money, it seems, is to be drawn out of the treasury of the United States—the reason for which is not assigned in the bill.


'cents on the dollar'

From afternoon session of Wednesday, November 5, 1800," in A Journal of the General Assembly of the State of Vermont, Begun and Held at Middlebury, in the County of Addison, October Ninth, one Thousand Eight Hundred (1800):

A bill, entitled, An act in addition to an act entitled "An act, laying a tax of three cents on the dollar, on the polls and rateable estate of the inhabitants, in the county of Windham, passed on the 2d day of November 1799," originated in council, was read.

Resolved, That this house do concur with the governor and council in passing said bill, and that the same become a law of this state.

From David Cook, Cook's American Arithmetic: Being a System of Decimal Arithmetic (1800):

A merchant owes 14175, 4 5 but by reason of losses, finds himself unable to pay his debts ; therefore he compounds with his creditors at ,54 cents on the dollar, how much is the whole amount that he pays?

From Nathan Daboll, Daboll's Schoolmaster's Assistant: Being a Plain Practical System of Arithmetic (1802):

28. A merchant agreed with his debtor, that if he would pay him down 65 cents on the dollar, he would give him up a note of hand, of 249 dol. . 88 cts. I demand what the debtor must pay for his note? Ans. 162dol, 420ts. 2n.

From afternoon session of Wednesday, October 27, 18030, in A Journal of the General Assembly of the State of Vermont, at Their Session, Begun and Hilden at Burlington, in the County of Chittenden, the Fourteenth Day of October, A.D. One Thousand Eight Hundred and Two (1803):

Odvered, That the said report be recommitted. The committee to whom was referred the petition of sundry proprietors and land owners of the town of Enosburg, stating, that the inhabitants of said town have for several years, at their annual meetings, voted a tax of six cents on the dollar, in addition to the tax required by law, for the purpose of making and repairing roads and bridges ; that the said roads still continue almost impassable ; and praying for a tax of three cents on the acre in said town :

Reported, That six cents has been heretofore granted by the Legislature of Enosburgh, for making and repairing roads and bridges in said town ; that forty six of the proprietors are petitioners for the present tax ; that said town has many roads to repair ; and that in their opinion the prayer of the petition ought to be granted.


'cents to the dollar'

From "An Act to alter and re-establish the charter of the borough of Wilmington" (passed in Dover, Delaware, January 31, 1809), reprinted in Laws of the State of Delaware, volume 4 (1813):

... Provided, notice thereof [that is, of the tax assessment] shall be given to the person, or the representative of an estate, so assessed, so that he, she or they, may have an opportunity of appearing before the court of Appeals ; and after the said council shall have held a court of Appeals, as aforesaid, they shall estimate and fix how many cents to the dollar will be necessary to raise the sum or sums of money required, as aforesaid, and the clerk shall thereupon make out, or cause to be made out, a true list agreeably to the proceedings aforesaid, certify the same under his hand and the seal of the borough, and deliver the same into the hands of the collector, within ten days of the time the dollarage was laid, as aforesaid, with an order, under the hands of at least one of the said burgesses, and two of the said council, (which they are hereby authorized to make,) requiring the said collector, forthwith to collect and receive from the persons and estates assessed, the several sums in the said list mentioned ; ...

From a letter from Thomas Jefferson, dated January 14, 1818, to an unidentified recipient, reprinted in Niles' Weekly Register (May 2, 1818):

There is, however, an intermediate measure which might bring the two plans together. If the literary fund be one of one and a half million dollars, take the half million for the colleges and university, it will establish them meagerly and make a deposite of the remaining million. Its interest of $60,000 will give $50 a year to each ward, towards the teacher's wages, and reduce the tax to 24 instead of 36 cents to the dollar; and as the literary fund continues to accumulate give one-third of the increase to the colleges and university, and two thirds to the ward schools.

From "Domestic Economy!" in Niles' Weekly Register (July 24, 1819):

One of our newspapers notes the following circumstances, as being "remarkable:"—

"In a milliner's shop a few days since, a fashionable lady actually declined purchasing a new Leghorn because it was too dear, and a respectable tradesman has been detected carrying home his own beef steak from market."

To match this, these facts may be relied on, tho' they came to our knowledge by accident——there is a merchant in Baltimore who lately failed, and it is thought will not pay 50 cents to the dollar. His family consists of himself and his wife only—who are waited upon by the following servants: [five people and their monthly costs are enumerated].

From "Treason, Rebellion, Revolution!" in Niles' Weekly Register (October 30, 1819):

I myself saw a person paying 150 cents for a peck of green peas, who just afterwards failed, without giving up any thing to the bulk of his creditors—and a few days ago, was not a little amused at a dialogue which I heard in the market between a couple of negroes, one of whom was buying up every nice thing he could find for a great dinner which his master was to give on the morrow, though the name of that master was then in the papers as an insolvent debtor, and, as I am told, will not pay 10 cents to the dollar.

And from "Chronicle," in Niles' Weekly Register (July 29, 1820):

Cincinnati banks. There has been a great excitement at Cincinnati, in consequence of a belief pretty generally entertained that those concerned in the Miami [Ohio] bank were secretly engaged in purchasing up its notes, at a very large discount; though, as it was also thought, the bank was able to meet its engagements, under a careful management. If such things have not happened ion Cincinnati, they have occurred at other places, and there is no sort of novelty in them. The bills of the bank alluded to are worth about 25 cents to the dollar in the Baltimore money-market. I myself sold some at 50 per cent discount, and unfortunately yet have a few on hand very handsomely marked like money.


'cents upon the dollar'

From Chauncey Lee, The American Accomptant; Being a Plain, Practical and Systematic Compendium of Federal Arithmetic (1797):

How to change the Ratio of any number of Pence or Shillings upon the Pound, into the equivalent number of Cents upon the Dollar, and the reverse.

Q. What is the Rule?

RULE. 1. To change shillings upon the pound, multiply them by 5, and the product will be the equivalent number of cents upon the dollar.

2. To change pence upon the pound into the same ratio of cents upon the dollar, you have only to annex a cypher to the pence, and divide them by 24 ; the quotient will be the true number of cents.

RULE 2. To reveres the operation, or change cents upon the dollar into pence upon the pound, multiply the given number of cents by 24 ; then cut off the right hand figure of the product, and the rest are the number of pence sought.

From "Abner Prince v. William Whitmore, Administrator" (October 1811), in Massachusetts Reports: Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, volume 8 (1813):

The case was referred to the opinion of the court on the following facts: ... that on the 12th of April 1810, the judge of probate allowed the defendant five months further to settle his administration account, within which time he did settle his final account ; after which a dividend of the estate was decreed at the rate of 25 cents upon the dollar, the plaintiff's share being 58 dollars 12 cents : ...

From an entry dated March 7, 1815 in Records of the [Weston, Massachusetts] Town Clerk, 1804–1826 (1894):

Voted that the collection of taxes be put to the person who will collect them for the lowest sum, whereupon Cyrus Russell offered to collect them for two cents upon the dollar & he was appointed and chosen Collector of taxes, and constable of the town. March 7, 1815. Personally appeared Cyrus Russell and took the oath as collector and constable —ISAAC FISKE, town clerk

And from an entry for "Monday, March 12, 1821," in Journal of the Assembly of the State of New York, volume 43:

It is proposed to lay an additional duty on sales at auction of all articles of foreign manufacture, of five cents upon the dollar, (or one twentieth,) upon the present duties, so that articles now paying an auction duty of $1 upon the hundred, shall pay a duty of $1 05, and so on, in that proportion.


Discussion

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the individual examples cited above is how consistent the sense of the phrases is. You could replace the preposition in any of the instances that appear above with on and have an idiomatically normal-sounding statement in the context in which it appears.

More surprising to me is the result I got when I replaced pennies with pence and dollar with pound in the series of phrases tracked. Here is the Ngram chart for "pence on the pound" (blue line) vs. "pence to the pound" (red line) vs. "pence for the pound" (green line) vs. "pence in the pound" (yellow line) vs. "pence upon the pound" (dark blue) vs, "pence of the pound" (magenta line) for the period 1710–1860:

This chart, which starts seventy years earlier than the chart for "cents/dollar" posted near the top of this answer but ends at the same year, shows a massive preference for "pence in the pound"—the runner-up in the "cents/dollar" results—during the period when "cents on the dollar was establishing itself as the preferred wording in the U.S. The results shown in the two Ngram charts indicate that "pence in the pound" was well established in British English at the beginning of the era of cents and dollars, but also that any preference for it in colonial America failed to translate into adoption of "cents in the dollar" over "cents on the dollar" in the long term.

The phrase "cents on the dollar" won out over at least five other preposition options that people used to mean the same thing in the early period of U.S. independence, and, remarkably, it did so despite the existing dominant position in British English of "pence in the pound." Tangentially, with regard to answering jsw29's original question about why the U.S. phrase uses on as the operative preposition, it seems to me that any answer that proposes to explain the logic behind that choice ought also to be prepared to explain the logic behind the contemporaneous (or somewhat earlier) British English choice of in in the corresponding phrase "pence in the pound." Usage of particular prepositions in particular idiomatic forms is in many cases at least somewhat irrational and therefore (in my view) impervious to purely logical explanation.

I don't have any explanation for the sudden rise in frequency of use of "cents on the dollar" starting around 1822 after more than 25 years of fairly stable frequency—but clearly once the expression reached a certain critical mass of popularity its usage became self-perpetuating and its advantage over alternative wordings using other prepositions in place of on skyrocketed.

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  • This answer is, as your answers always are, admirably detailed, but it does not answer the question; in fact, you explicitly say at the beginning that you won't even attempt to answer it, and you begin the only sentence that could be a contribution to answering it with 'tangentially'. It is precisely because I anticipated the possibility of such an answer being offered that I included the parenthetical explanation at the end of the question.
    – jsw29
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:32
  • The version of the phrase with on is more puzzling than those with in or for because, taken at face value (without being aware of its being an established idiom), it leads one to think of the cents being on top of (i.e. in addition to) the dollar; to understand its meaning one needs to be explicitly instructed that it is an idiom. On the other hand, one does not need such instruction to understand the versions of the phrase with in or for.
    – jsw29
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:32
  • @jsw: I was aware that you wanted answers that addressed a different question than the one I tried to answer. In fact, I was tempted to ask a different question—about the history of "cents on the dollar" and related forms that use different prepositions—and post my answer there. But I was dissuaded by the fact that my answer does fairly directly address the question stated in the title (but not the body) of your question: "What is the origin of '__cents on the dollar'?"—and most future readers will open this question on the basis of that wording. Still, if you feel that my answer shouldn't...
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 23, 2023 at 23:01
  • ...be posted here, I will remove it. The other point that I thought might be of some interest to people interested in the first question you pose in the body of your post is that British English used a different preposition in the corresponding form of the phrase for pence and pounds—and again not the one that you consider most intuitive. Please let me know if you think that my answer, on balance, adds nothing of value as a response to to your posted question, and I will act accordingly. Thanks!
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 23, 2023 at 23:01
  • 1
    I have no objection to your answer being posted here; as you say, it is sufficiently close to the question to make it useful to future visitors to have it on the same page as whatever answers (if any) get posted to the question itself. (I don't think that a questioner in any deep sense 'owns' the page of the question anyway.) The point of my first comment was only to put it explicitly 'on the record' that the question remains unanswered.
    – jsw29
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:08

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