The slang of cold cash has a long and storied association with food. A coin has been known as a bean since 1810; money has been dough since 1840; and sugar since 1859. Hence sugar daddy, a hot term of the Roaring Twenties, generally meaning an elderly man who lavishes minks, diamonds, penthouses and dollar bills on a younger, and presumably deeply caring woman.
American dollars are green. Green paper money was first issued in 1861—the color personally chosen by Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary. The new dollars were promptly nicknamed “greenbacks” by the Union soldiers who got paid with them, and by the 1880s, according to the Dictionary of American Slang, people were paying their creditors with green stuff. The green color reminded a lot of people of vegetables, so by 1911, people were calling their green bills kale, by 1929, lettuce, and by 1942, cabbage.
Moneymaking became more sophisticated in subsequent years, and in 1996, the U.S. government, made nervous by creative counterfeiters, began printing more security-conscious bills, complete with embedded ribbons, microprinting, fancier presidential portraits—including a really odd-looking Andrew Jackson—and optically variable ink. The bills are still green on the back, but the fronts are now tricked out with touches of blue, lavender, pink, and orange. These are hopefully un-reproducible, but they’re definitely less appetizing.
Bread–the favored money sobriquet of beret-sporting Beatniks—was introduced in the 1930s, and is thought to be a derivation of Cockney rhyming slang, which has confused visitors to the East End of London since the mid-19th century. In rhyming slang, one word is substituted for another in a euphonious play on words, as in trouble-and-strife (wife), holy friar (liar), apples and pears (stairs), and bread-and-honey (money). Of even earlier origin is breadwinner, a word which—according to the Oxford English Dictionary—has meant a person who supports a family with a salary (a.k.a., the bread) since 1821.
Then there’s bacon, as in bringing home the bacon, which since the early 20th century has also meant forking over a paycheck. The original phrase, however, dates to the turn of the 12th century and refers to actual bacon and a marital harmony contest. The story goes that a prior in the little town of Dunmow in Essex, England, promised a flitch of bacon—that is, a generous whole side of a pig—to any man who could swear before God and the congregation that he had not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. A husband who succeeded in bringing home the bacon was a prize catch, esteemed by the entire community, according to the English Breakfast Society, for his “forbearance, self-control and patience.”
The point is, though, that we’ve got a long history of knowing what money is really all about. It’s about food.
In 2013, California gardener and designer Ron Finley gave a TED talk in which he pitched the benefits of growing one’s own food. Finley comes from south Los Angeles, an area home to 26.5 million people, rife with vacant lots, strip malls, and fast-food joints. Finley describes it as a “food desert.” Along with his group of volunteer activists, he’s doing his best to change all that, fostering healthy eating habits by establishing community gardens on unused land. Their motto is “Plant Some S—t.”
“Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” says Finley, and he’s right on there.
Beans and lettuce, cabbage and kale—that’s the real green stuff.
- Flexner, Stuart Berg. Listening to America. Simon & Schuster, 1988.
- Lighter, J.E. “Word Improvisation.” The Atlantic, June 1997.
Lead photo from TaxRebate.org.uk.