It's A Bull Market: Slang Terms Involving Currency

Posted by Allison on 4 April 2009, 10:25

Every corner of life tends to have a number of slang terms and colloquialisms relating to it, so it should come as no surprise that the world of currency is the same.

In fact there is a lot of material to work with here, since we have plenty of different currencies working in different cultures, and everyone has their own way of fondly referring to particular coins, banknotes or currencies.

And of course quite apart from the currencies themselves there is also the world of the stock market to contend with, where the people involved have also come up with various slang terms to describe the way that currencies are behaving at the present time.

The term included in the title of this article – “It's a bull market” – obviously refers to the bull being a strong and robust animal whose horns point upwards – indicating the direction of the market itself.  This term is used when the stock market is doing particularly well and seems as if it will continue in this way.  The opposite of this has been called a “bear's market”, using the analogy that a bear will attack with its paws and bring down its prey.

Cockney rhyming slang also uses various terms to describe our bread and honey – or to use the normal word, money.  Greengages is used as a substitute for wages, while our much loved 'fiver' (five pound note) is still called a Lady Godiva by some people.  Cockney rhyming slang originated in London but some terms have passed into everyday language and are used by plenty of people all across Britain.

Cockney rhyming slang has a charm all of its own, but it is normally quite easy to tell what the original word should be from the use of the rhyming slang itself.  Some other words and phrases used to describe money and currency are rather more obscure, and take some digging to work out how they came into being in the first place.

In Britain we often put our 'coppers' in a separate jar or piggy bank and pay them into the bank in money bags when we want to get rid of some (or perhaps use them in the penny machines on holiday) but the actual term coppers came from the fact that the small denominations of coin – which are still somewhat copper coloured – used to be made from virtually all copper.  When someone says they only have coppers or small change, they mean they only have the smallest denominations of coins in their pockets.

A similar situation is true of the American dollar bill, which is sometimes fondly called a greenback.  This is simply because of its colour, although it is of course green on both sides.  It is also commonly referred to as a buck.  Americans also refer to their banknotes as Benjamin Franklins, George Washingtons and so on, depending on whose face appears on the banknote.  Thus each one refers to a particular denomination and would only be easily understood by Americans themselves, who are used to seeing and using the bills every single day.

America actually has plenty of slang terms for its own currency and some of these have made their way into other sayings as well.  For example the phrase “Don't nickel and dime me” is used as a way of telling someone who owes you money that you want it all in one go.  A nickel is a five cent coin, while a dime is a ten cent coin.  Needless to say you wouldn't want to be paid in these tiny amounts.

Some British sums of money (rather than specific banknotes) also have other names, some of which refer to animals.  For example five hundred pounds is sometimes referred to as a monkey.  A pony is cheaper, but it still amounts to twenty five pounds.

Where did these terms come from though?  Surprisingly, although you are probably most likely to hear them in London nowadays, they originally came from another type of banknotes – the Indian rupee.  Past issues of the rupee banknotes had various animals on them, including a monkey and a pony.  The five hundred rupee note showed a monkey, and so this was adopted to refer to that amount in pounds in the UK.  A somewhat strange connection, but it shows how one currency can affect another at times.

But there are other terms which have a rather different meaning, although they still often derive from money itself in some way.  Perhaps the most famous and still widely used euphemism in England is to 'spend a penny', ie. to pay a visit to the loo.  This originates from what it used to cost to get into a public toilet years ago; somehow the term 'spend a twenty pence' doesn't quite have the same ring to it, because that is what it would probably cost you now if you had to pay!

There are also some sage words of advice in the English language, which refer to the financial situation someone might find themselves in.  For example, we have all heard the saying 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves', meaning that a good savings habit will get you a greater nest egg and a much bigger amount of money saved up than anything else.

'Penny for your thoughts' is another popular one which has fallen out of favour a little in modern times, but the idea seems to be that if someone gives you a penny you will tell them what you are thinking about.  How this came about is uncertain; maybe it was simply a way of trying to find out a person's secrets!  The chances are good that you would have to pay a lot more than a penny to find them out now though.

Considering the huge role that currency and money in general plays in our lives, it is hardly surprising that it has wormed its way into our language as well.  Money inspires the way we talk; we think up names and affectionate terms for the currency we use in our lives, and we even have sayings relating to the role it has to fulfil.  Even the stock market has developed a range of terms for various situations about how certain currencies are performing and how the markets are doing in general.

It is also interesting to note that it's not just a case of different countries having different terms and sayings relating to their own currency; as we've seen by looking at Cockney rhyming slang, some terms and phrases originate and are used in a specific area or region rather than being used in the country as a whole.

One wonders whether the Euro will eventually get a whole group of slang terms relating to it as well; at the moment there is rather a lack of them, although the Dutch have resigned themselves to carrying over their old slang terms to use with the new currency as well.  Over time there will probably be a whole new crop of slang terms which are created purely for use with the Euro, but for the moment it is probably one of the only currencies in the world which is virtually slang free.