Weird Words, Part 6

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 edition


I am hoping, really hoping, that quite a few of you use this word regularly. Hopefully, too, it isn’t just the over-the-hill crowd who uses it. I frequently think that my use of such words dates me. I mean I don’t look over-the-hill yet, right? Oh well, give it up Dianne. It’s a lost cause. It’s been a lost cause for years now. And what’s with using a ten year old photo for your WordPress profile anyway. Long story behind that. Maybe another day.

So, having used this word recently, I got to wondering about its origins. I do that a lot. But first, as always, I check to make sure the word actually means what I think it means. And don’t you think it’s sad that the only way we have to define words is with other words that also have definitions? That’s a very sloppy and error prone system that doesn’t at all appeal to the little engineer inside of me. It would be so much more direct and precise to communicate by mental telepathy. But we aren’t there yet, so spoken language will just have to suffice.

Most dictionaries agree that “finagle” means to use dishonest or devious methods to bring something about; to scheme, to get something by trickery, to cheat or swindle. But I think that mostly people use it with the implication of merely bending or twisting, but not completely breaking the rules. I believe finagling to be more about clever persuasion, despite what the dictionaries say, than outright fraud.

It first appeared in American English (as opposed to English English or whatever the heck the Brits call what they speak, I’ve never been clear about that) in the 1920’s. But its exact origins are not clear. It has been traced by some to the Old English dialect word “fainaigue,” meaning to cheat, renege or shirk work. Others who profess to know where our words come from suggest also that it might have its origins in the word “feign.” Feign would seem to mean: to give a false appearance of, or to make believe with the intent to deceive. And here’s something that has always bothered me, why do we have so many words that say the same thing? Seems unnecessarily ponderous and inefficient to me. Another gripe from little inner engineer.


Fin is not that unusual a word if you are talking about fishes, rockets, or cars from the ’50’s. And it wasn’t until I finagled an extra five bucks for myself recently that I got to wondering why “fin” is also a five dollar bill.

As it turns out, “fin” is short for the Yiddish word for the number five (“finf” in the case of Yiddish, in German it is “fünf”; yes those are two little dots over the “U”). But then I got to wondering about why we call paper money “bills.” That was an interesting journey; to me anyway.

There are about 20 modern nations whose currency is called the “dollar.” Dollar derives from “taler” or “thaler.” Both are pronounced as the former and that would be just like “taller.” The Germans are very regular in their pronunciation and generally, once you learn the rules you can accurately pronounce any new word you might read, but for some reason or other, they put the letter “H” into words and then sort of completely forget that it is there. At any rate, “taler” comes from “Joachimsthal,” (you would say that something like yo-OCK-heems-tall) the name of a place in Bohemia (that bit of territory that was sometimes Poland and sometimes Germany) where the taler (a silver coin) was created. “Thal” means “valley” in German. The modern German spelling dropped the “H,” which explains the new spelling of Neandertal (but we Americans still say Neanderthal). But not everyone has hopped on that particular spelling bandwagon because I’ve seen it spelled both ways. Don’t ask me how any of that relates to the real issue. What was that again? Oh yeah. So anyway, it looks like we have “dollars” because someone, a long time ago, made a certain kind of coin in a certain valley.

Taking this a bit further (was there ever any doubt?), “sawbuck” comes from a kind of saw horse with crossed legs that form an “X” like the Roman numeral for the number 10. Or so those in the “know” would have us believe. I don’t really get the connection, though. Lumber? Money?  So anyway, a sawbuck is a ten dollar bill and one dollar is sometimes referred to as a “buck.”

But this still doesn’t explain the “bill” in five dollar bill. Okay, so here is what I found out about “bill.” Paper money originated in two forms. One was drafts which are receipts for value held on account (whatever the heck that means). Bills were issued with a promise to convert at a later date. Convert to what? Gold maybe, or silver? I remember once being gifted a bill of some denomination that actually had something to that effect printed right on it. I might still have it somewhere.

Here are a few more slang words for money (just because I can):  bacon, bread, dough, cabbage, lettuce, kale, folding green, long green, rhino (hunh? really?), jack, moolah, oscar, pap (oh my!), plaster (why is it when someone is really drunk they are said to be plastered?), rivets, scratch, spondilicks, rutabaga, ace, bean, boffo, bone, bullet, case note, clam, coconut, fish, frogskin, lizard, rock, scrip, simoleon and yellowback (what about greenback?).

Mickey Finn

Because, with me at least, one thing always leads to another, Mickey Finn just sort of popped into my consciousness and while I was sitting in front of the computer anyway and because it is just so darn easy to look things up these days, I had a go at this odd saying. That’s one really long sentence and because you are not really supposed to make a paragraph out of just one sentence, I had to add this one.

I think we all know what a “Mickey Finn” is, but I’ll remind some of us who may have forgotten. I’m just generally considerate that way. A Mickey Finn or just a Mickey is a soporific or hallucinogenic (although the latter might not have been the case when the phrase was first coined) drug added (unknown to the imbiber) to an alcoholic beverage. Usually this is done for nefarious purposes.

This doped up alcoholic beverage is supposedly named after a character from 19th century (that would be the 1800’s for those of you who don’t know how that works) Chicago. Finn was the keeper of the Lone Star Saloon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was alleged to have drugged and robbed his customers. There are a couple of U.S. newspaper references from December of 1903 that allude to this. Long ago, it was also a generic name for any Irishman; much like “Paddy” today. And because it was used in that way, one has to wonder how much truth there might actually be in any of this despite the reputed newspaper articles.

I sincerely hope that you have been entertained and edified. And if you ever feel like leaving me a tip for the service, I will go on record as preferring a fin to a Mickey any day.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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