January 21, 2015

Case File #015.01.21: SAWBUCK

The slang term sawbuck, meaning “a ten-dollar bill,” is an Americanism that first appeared around 1850, and according to most etymologists, the term was derived from the similar-sounding Dutch word zaagbok, which means “sawhorse.” But why, you may ask, did nineteenth-century Americans use a word meaning “sawhorse” as the basis for a reference to the ten-dollar bill? Well, many experts believe the slang term was meant to be an allusion to the resemblance between the Roman numeral X (for ten) and the X-shaped ends of some sawhorses, and this theory seems to be substantiated by the fact that sawbuck later became a standard English synonym for sawhorse. I should note, however, that some lexicographers date the English noun's sense of “sawhorse” before its informal pecuniary sense. But such a stance is not supported by the extant evidence, which indicates that the word's sense of “sawhorse” came into use no earlier than 1862.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

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