Here’s How “Bucks” Became Another Word for “Dollars”

Hint: This is quite the mystery, my deer.

moneyDedMityay/ShutterstockImagine that your friend, who’s having a great day, tells you, “I feel like a million dollars.” A little bit confused, you reply, “Wait, don’t you mean ‘a million bucks’?” Your friend shrugs and says, “Bucks, dollars. Same thing.”

But why is that? How did the seemingly random word “bucks” become interchangeable for dollars?

Well, here’s a hint: The proper, non-slang definition of the word “buck” is a male deer. Deer were being called “bucks” long before dollars were—long before American dollars even existed, in fact. Here are some more cool facts you never knew about money.

In the early days of North American colonization, settlers were trading goods with the Native Americans. In the 1700s, animal pelts were forms of currency, much in the same way dollar bills are today. And one of the most valuable animal pelts was—you guessed it—a deer pelt, also known as a “buck.” A document from the year 1748 reveals that a barrel of whiskey held the same value as “five bucks.” Another document from the same year laments a robbery that occurred around present-day Ohio. The unfortunate traveler was “robbed of the value of 300 bucks.”

Interestingly, even back then, one “buck” didn’t necessarily mean one deer pelt. A buck had to be a particularly good deer pelt. Since deer pelts are thickest in the winter, the pelts of deer killed in the summertime were less valuable, and it might take several of those to equal one “buck.” Multiple pelts of smaller animals, like beavers or rabbits, could also be combined to equal the value of one “buck.” Speaking of rabbits, did you know that there’s an island in Japan full of bunnies?

This connection of the word “bucks” with currency stuck around after coinage of U.S. dollars began, around 1792. And we’ve been nicknaming dollars “bucks” ever since.

Interestingly, though, the phrase “pass the buck” actually has a totally different origin. This expression comes from nineteenth-century poker games, when players would add objects like knives or pencils to the jackpot for the winner to hold onto. The jackpot would have to be replaced when the person who had it was dealing the cards, and the knives commonly used for the jackpot were called “buck-handled” knives—hence, “pass the buck.” It’s pure coincidence that the name of a common knife brand aligns so well with our slang word for “dollar.” (Speaking of cool, animal-related word coincidences, here’s why we get so confused about “duck tape” vs. “duct tape.”)

Next in fascinating money trivia, learn why our dollar sign is an S!

[Sources: BusinessInsider, todayifoundout.com, thrillist.com]

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.