To Answer it Simply
If you have a fin, a sawbuck, and four bits, you will have $15.50. Fin, also known as “finnif”, comes from the Yiddish term “finf”, which means “five”. Sawbuck actually refers to a type of sawhorse that has cross wooden legs. The legs form an ‘X’, the Roman number 10. So, when we talk of a double sawbuck, we speak of a twenty-dollar bill. Sometimes, sawbuck is also abbreviated as “saw”, but not “ buck”, obviously. The heavy dollar coins were once known as plugs, iron men, wagon wheels, or sinkers.
The primitive Spanish peso coins could be physically broken into eight pieces each. Each piece worth an eighth of the peso, that is, one real. So, these coins were also known as “two bits”, a quarter dollars, 25-cent coins, and of course, “pieces of eight”.
Slang Words for Money
We often use slang words for money about the historical associations, features, appearance, or currency units for all the coins or banknotes involved. Some standard slang terms used in the United States to refer to money, in general, are duckets, simoleons, smackers, and dough. Occasionally, “fin” is used as a slang term for a bill of $5. The origins of the name “fin” lie in both Yiddish and German languages. In both languages, “fin” is loosely related to “five.” Other famous slang words used for $5 bills are “five-spot” and “fiver.”
What is a Sawbuck?
The term “sawbuck” comes from the carpentry tool that resembled the Roman numeral X. It is a slang word for the sawbuck rack shaped in X used to hold and cut wood. Interbank ForEx dealers often use this term for denoting a transaction of USD 10 million (U.S. dollars). Before the Federal Reserve came into being, the U.S. Treasury was linked to fiat currency issuing. The Treasury picked Roman numerals for using them on U.S. banknotes. This clarified the usage of X for representing the number 10. Shortly after `1792, U.S. dollar coins came into circulation while the paper currency was introduced in 1861. The United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing was created in 1862. All the U.S. paper currency gets developed and produced by them.
Issued in 1861, the very first banknote of ten dollars had a tiny image of Abraham Lincoln and on its reverse was the Roman numeral X. The bills were actually demanded notes, or equal to the T-note or Treasury Note of today. Many people believe that the banknotes with Roman X started using the term ‘sawbuck’ for ten-dollar notes. However, this X vanished from the reverse side of the ten-dollar bill by the 1880s. It favoured numerous designs, such as elaborate prints, number 10, along with the images of Columbia, gold coins, and the term ‘silver’ over the silver certificate bills.
The History of Sawbucks
In the 1800s, sawbucks became the tools that were frequently used in various American households. Most kitchen spaces were anchored by the cast-iron cookstoves that served as both a heat source and cooking food. The stoves could either use wood or cool. In rural areas, wood was used more prevalently, while coal was utilized in urban settings. The X-shaped sawbuck was present in the backyard of most people. It was used for cutting logs into sizes required for burning in the cast-iron cookstoves.
It was different from a sawhorse, which helps in raising and supporting wood to saw. The sawbuck used to secure the wood into a cradle and was mitigated, slipped, and kick-backed while cutting. Children, adult women as well as men, everyone could easily use them. As per the conjecture, the term ‘buck’ used for indicating money came from the colonial trading days.
During those days, the monetary exchange of commodities took place based on a deer hide or buckskin. You can find its earliest written reference in Conrad Weiser’s journal entry dated 1748. Weiser was a Pennsylvania pioneer who used the word pretty frequently. He uses it for the first time in the journal on page 41, where he wrote, “a cask of whiskey shall be sold to you for five bucks.” AS per the Oxford English Dictionary, another ancient citing would be in the 1856’s Democratic State Journal, which listed the fine fixed for battery and assault as ‘twenty bucks.’
What is a Bit?
The term ‘bit’ is a colloquial expression that refers to particular coins in several coinages worldwide. In the United States, the colonial period saw the term “bit” being designated for money. It was when the Spanish dollar, or “piece of eight,” was the most used unit of currency. As mentioned earlier, it was the equivalent of eight Spanish silver reals. One silver real or $1/8 was equal to 1 bit. In 1794, the decimal U.S. currency was adopted, and no U.S. coin valued $1/8.
However, “two bits” continued to be in the language. It referred to $1/4. As there wasn’t any 1-bit coin, 10¢ or a dime was sometimes referred to as a short bit while a long bit was 15¢. Picayune was initially half a bit/real and got transferred to the United States nickel. Like other foreign coins, the Spanish coinage remained in wide use and permission because before the Coinage Act of 1857, the legal tender by Chapter XXII of the Act of April 10, 1806, discontinued the practice. (See How Much Would A Shilling Or A Pound Cost In Today’s Us Money?)
Uses of “Bits”
“Two-bit” or “two bits” are still used in general as a colloquial word for a quarter dollar or 25¢. One can also see it being used in the “Shave and a Haircut, two bits” song catchphrase. “Two-bit,” when used as an adjective, describes something unworthy or cheap. “King of the Road,” a song by Roger Miller, has these lines “Ah, but two hours of pushin’ broom buys an / Eight by twelve four-bit room referring to the signs indicating “Rooms to let 50¢.” Crown Records came up as a U.S. record label in the early 1930s. It sold records for just 25¢.
The sleeves of the company had “2 Hits for 2 Bits” as an advertisement. You can also find the use of “bit” in Langston Hughes’ poem “Six-Bits Blues”, which as a couplet, “Gimme six bits’ worth of ticket / On a train that runs somewhere.…” It also has its presence in the sports jingle “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar … all for (player’s name), stand up and hollers!”