The mind is a connecting organ," writes I. A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric. And metaphor, which is Greek for "to carry beyond," is a figure of speech that connects two mostly different objects or ideas that turn out to be alike in some particular way. So money metaphors -- figuratively and literally "coined phrases" -- provide clues on how we connect money to other aspects of life.
Nowadays, picayune is not a monetary term. But a picayune was originally a Spanish half-real (pronounced "RAY-ahl") piece worth about six cents that circulated throughout the American South. It didn't take long for prices to go up and for inflation to erode the already paltry value of the coin. These market forces created the phrase not worth a picayune, referring to something of little value. Before long, to be picayune about a matter meant to be petty or picky.
To go whole hog expresses an opposite meaning. One derivation explains that hog was a seventeenth-century slang word for an English shilling. Thus, to go whole hog was to spend the entire sum all at once.
A talent, today, is a gift that has little to do with money. But a talent in ancient times was a monetary unit of weight in silver or gold, one that figures prominently in The Parable of the Talents: "For the kingdom of Heaven is as a man traveling into a far country, who called his servants and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability" (Matthew 25:14-15). The current meaning of talent -- some special ability or aptitude -- is a figurative extension of the parable.
These metaphors from money express magnitude, which makes sense if we consider what money is used for. When we look at metaphors for money, on the other hand, we find that some of the most colorful come from the parlance of poker.
Among the everyday poker-to-money metaphors are blue-chip stock (blue chips are the most valuable), bet one's bottom dollar (risk the entire stack of chips, right down to the bottom), and pass the buck (a common cliché that means "to shift responsibility").
Why should handing someone a dollar indicate a transfer of responsibility? The buck originally designated a marker that was placed in front of the player whose turn it was to deal the next hand. This was done to vary the order of betting and to keep one person from dealing all the time, thus cutting down on the chances of cheating.
During the heyday of poker in the nineteenth century, the betting marker was often a hunting knife whose handle was made of a buck's horn, which gave us the expression pass the buck. In the Old West, silver dollars were often used as markers, and these coins took on the slang name buck. Our most common slang for a dollar, our basic monetary unit, is thus a metaphor to a token of responsibility used at nineteenth-century poker tables.
There is such a thing as carrying a metaphor too far, however. Risk and uncertainty may be an everyday part of economic life. But as the other metaphors show, there's more to money than a connection to that little gambler inside.
-- Richard Lederer is the author of Crazy English, and, most recently, Fractured English.