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October 16, 2008

Slang of the Week: clam (noun)
a dollar

For fifty clams, Sid’s Seafood Shack will sell you fifty clams.

Celebrity quote:
“Two whole days I dreamed with Swede about the things twenty-five dollars could buy. The bills were straight voltage, juicing all sorts of hallucinations. Could you buy a Hiawatha bicycle for twenty-five clams? Swede thought you could, and moreover figured there was room for her on the handlebars.”
—author Leif Enger in the book Peace Like a River

My column two weeks ago on mackerel (as well as recent developments on Wall Street) got me thinking about money. Although I’ve written on the subject many times for the website, I wondered if I’d missed any of the colorful terms people have used to talk about cash.

Apparently I had. Doing research in both dusty books and contemporary rap songs, I found that there is no shortage of such slang. And while I learned some new words, some of my most surprising finds were about words I thought I knew well.

I’d always connected the generic term mazuma with the jazz age, but in fact, it came into being at the turn of the twentieth century and can be found in some unusual contexts. In a 1913 novel by Clarence Mulford, for example, Hopalong Cassidy defines it in conjunction with a few synonyms: “Money… It's that shiny stuff you buy things with. Spondulix, cash, mazuma.”

Ducats, now associated with modern-day rappers, got its name from a twelfth century European coin (which in turn got its name from the Latin for duchy—the lands of a duke), but it began its career as a generic term for money around the time of the American Revolution.

The most interesting revelation, however, was the word clam. Since it’s a word that sounds like it should be in hard-boiled detective fiction, I expected it to date from the early twentieth century. It did get its start in that genre, but not with Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer.

The first recorded use was in 1886, in a book called New York Nell by Edward Wheeler. The story’s heroine, Nell Niblo, was called a “boy-girl detective,” not because of any gender-bending, but rather because she worked in a traditionally male dominated field. Despite her promising start as an independent woman, at the end of the book, she gets married and gives up her dangerous job.

So how much do you know about money slang? I’ve assembled some of this entertaining material into a quiz on the Slang City website. Though I’ve named it for a classic Wu-Tang Clan song, Cash Rules Everything Around Me, this quiz will challenge your knowledge from the early days of US independence to the twenty-first century. Click here to try it!

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Straight from the Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary of Hipster Slang by Max Decharne. This fun trip down memory lane includes more slang on cash, including iron money and jack, as well as oddities like elephant teeth and “put an egg on your shoe and beat it.”