Thursday, February 21, 2008

That'll Be Three Bucks, Please

This question came up on my show recently: why do we call a dollar a buck, or multiple dollars, bucks?

The Oxford English Dictionary plumps for origin uncertain. The American Heritage Dictionary says that it comes from buckskin, once an article important in trade. Having perused a historical document recently, I tend to side with AHD.

The document is the Journal of Conrad Weiser, Esq., an early Pennsylvania settler of Germanic descent who learned various Indian languages and acted as a translator and treaty maker for many years. The journal entry for September 17, 1748, has him speaking to a tribe settled in for the hunting season on the Ohio River:

“Brethren: You have of late made frequent Complaints against the Traders bringing so much Rum to your Towns, & desir'd it might be stop't; & your Brethren the President & Council made an Act accordingly & put a stop to it, & no Trader was to bring any Rum or strong Liquor to your Towns. I have the Act here with me & shall explain it to You before I leave you; But it seems it is out of your Brethren's Power to stop it entirely. You send down your own Skins by the Traders to buy Rum for you. You go yourselves & fetch Horse loads of strong Liquor. But the other Day an Indian came to this Town out of Maryland with 3 Horse loads of Liquor, so that it appears you love it so well that you cannot be without it. You know very well that the Country near the endless Mountain affords strong Liquor, & the moment the Traders buy it they are gone out of the Inhabitants & are travelling to this Place without being discover'd; besides this, you never agree about it- one will have it, the other won't (tho' very few), a third says we will have it cheaper; this last we believe is spoken from your Hearts (here they Laughed). Your Brethren, therefore, have order'd that every ________ of Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.”

Gave a Belt.

“Brethren: Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.”

Gave a String of Wampum.

Given the context, there is no doubt that the deer skins used to buy rum are later called bucks, an abbreviation for buckskins. And in an earlier, unconnected treaty [Treaty of Savannah, 1733], we find these equivalents for trade: “One Blue Duffel Blanket, three Buckskins or Six Doeskins.” So bucks were worth twice the value of does.

Another caller also brought up “to pass the buck,” (to avoid responsibility) a saying decisively nipped in the bud by Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here.” Again, the AHD shows more certainty than the OED. It declares that this buck referred to a buckhorn knife, which was passed from player to player in a certain type of poker. The person holding the knife dealt that hand, rather than having a house dealer who would deal every hand.

SIDEBAR: Pearl S. Buck

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