Grand (one thousand)

Well, it’s still a lot to me.

Dear Word Detective: My husband and I were watching TV, and the common word “grand” was used for “one thousand dollars.” Can you tell me the origin of this usage? I have found one place that says it started with bookies in the 1920’s, but that is all I can locate. — Annie Rowland, Marble Falls, Texas.

sawbuck08.pngThat’s an interesting question. Incidentally, has it ever struck anyone else as odd that the word “bookie” is reserved for people who facilitate illicit gambling (from keeping the “books,” or ledgers, of bets), and isn’t used for people who enjoy reading books, who have to travel under the awkward and vaguely creepy label “book lovers”? I may be a little sensitive on this subject, because many years ago I wrote a book called “The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet,” and I can’t help but suspect that “The Bookie’s Guide…” would have sold better. (Yes, I know that makes no sense.)

By the way, that book is still for sale in many places. Please do not buy it. It was last updated in 1996, which, in internet terms, was approximately the 15th century.

Speaking of the 15th century, that’s when English adopted the Old French word “grant” (ultimately from the Latin “grandis,” great or large) as “grand,” with the sense of not simply “large,” but also “imposing” or “great, famous, exalted or important.” Over the next few centuries “grand” was frequently used in official titles (e.g., Grand Marshall), as well as in informal appellations honoring individuals (“grand old warrior,” etc.), and applied to events and things judged to be of great importance. Eventually, “grand” took on a more general sense in the popular vocabulary of “impressively large” (e.g., Grand Canyon) or “noble.” (The use of “grand” in “grandfather” and “grandmother,” however, is rooted in parallel terms in French, and actually predates the use of the “large” sort of “grand” in English by a century.)

Over the years, “grand” also acquired a variety of vernacular and slang senses, including “grand” meaning a large piano, as well as such forms as “grand prize” and “grand slam,” the latter once a term in whist or bridge, now used to mean “complete triumph” in any field.

The use of “grand” to mean “one thousand dollars” does indeed come from American underworld slang, first appearing around 1915. It was one of a number of slang terms, some still in use, for specific denominations of bills (or that amount of money), including “c-note” (or “century note”) for a one-hundred dollar bill (from the Roman numeral “C,” denoting 100). A “sawbuck” was a ten-dollar bill, from the resemblance of the Roman numeral “X” (ten) that once appeared thereon to a sawhorse, and a twenty-dollar bill was known as, logically, a “double sawbuck.”

The use of “grand” for a thousand dollars (or a thousand-dollar bill) may seem puzzling in this day of hedge-fund managers and their billion-dollar bonuses, but in 1915 one thousand dollars was a very large sum of money, far more than the average working stiff would ever possess at one time. So it made sense to pay tribute to such an impressive sum with the word “grand,” and the name stuck.

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