SAWBUCK.

Avva has recently learned this slang term for a ten-dollar bill, and in the discussion on his site it turns out that various English-speakers consulted by his Russian-speaking readers were not familiar with the expression. My assumption is that this is generational rather than regional, the term being long past its sell-by date, but I’m curious to hear from my own loyal band of readers. I’ve known the word as long as I can remember, but then I cut my teeth on ’40s pulp fiction (yellowing, not hot off the presses); do you know it, and if so, from reading or as living terminology?

Comments

  1. $5 is a fin or finnif from finf, yiddish for five.
    a sawbuck is $10, from the crossed legs of a sawhorse, an x, the roman numberal 10.
    a double sawbuck is $20.
    a sawbuck is sometimes abbreviated as a saw but never as a buck, because that is a $1.

  2. Yes, but do you use those terms yourself? Does anyone you know?
    (Incidentally, this is one of the pre-MT entries which used to have a raft of comments that somehow vanished into the Blogger black hole before I could transfer them to the safety of MT. I curse thee, Blogger!)

  3. I can remember hearing my father [1920-76] use the term C-note for a US$100 bill, but I don’t remember him using fin or sawbuck, though I heard it in older movies. My grandmother [1900-88], on the other hand, used to tell me about eagles and double eagles, $10 and $20 gold coins. I don’t use the terms myself, although I will occasionally refer to a quarter as 2 bits.

  4. That’s pretty much my experience too, though I’ll sometimes refer to a “fin” or “sawbuck” as a conscious archaism. I always wanted to be an old coot.

  5. This morning I came across an entry in Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English for syebuck (which had earlier been cited as fyebuck) meaning ‘sixpence’. From 1781. He suggests it may be connected to hog for shilling, which I was also unfamiliar with.

  6. My father (1948-2001) would always use those expressions. He would say things like: “Hey kid I got this for a saw buck, yeaaa a saaaaw buck, am I a wheeler and dealer or what”
    My reply: m’kay Dad lets see if we can leave the 70’s eh

  7. The term “sawbuck” originates from the late 1800s, when construction was the force driving America’s economic prosperity.
    During this period, carpenters and craftsmen used two boards nailed together in the shape of an “X” to secure wood that was to be cut. From the side, this man-made apparatus looked like the roman numeral for “10”. They named it a “sawbuck”.
    Over time, these craftsmen began to refer to their $10 bill as a “sawbuck”. The term caught on like gossip at a Bingo hall.
    We’re not making this up.
    Look at the site to see a jpg of the Large $10 Bill with the Red X or Sawbuck!
    – The SawBucks Team

  8. duce = $2
    fin = $5
    sawbuck = $10
    double sawbuck = $20
    does anyone know the name of the = $100?
    log = 100-$100(s)

  9. buckwheat says:

    $100 is a c-note or a yard. $1000 is a large, as in 5 large

  10. Eastwood says:

    variations are still used today, for example. Many young people call 20 inch rims dubbs (this comes from the term double sawbuck), or a twenty sack of marijuana is called a dubb sack.
    1 dollar is a slat
    5 dollars is a fin or half-saw
    10 dollars is a sawbuck
    20 is a double sawbuck
    50 is half a C
    100 is a C-note (short for century-note)

  11. A while back a poster mentioned “two bits.” Interestingly that term comes from our own ‘un-developed’ West. Before the banks moved West, during the mining era, people would trade using the gold that they mined. They’d break nuggets up into small pieces (called ‘bits’) and use them as tender. The value of a ‘bit’ was later ‘set’ at about 12 cents. Hence, two-bits was a quater.

  12. One thousand is called a “dime”. It is a term that gamblers have been using forever.

  13. The Mexican equivalent Dos Equis for the Roman XX is very familiar to the younger generation. The only “Sawbucks” I’ve ever seen is a ski run in Brighton, UT, same double-crossed visual image I suppose.

    Anyway I wanted to ask why different people see different animals in saw-bucks – why it’s “horses” in Mexico, “deer” in the US, and “goats” (кОзлы) in Russia?

  14. I don’t know, but in Hebrew it’s donkeys.

  15. in Hebrew it’s donkeys

    New one for me, but so it is according to Google Images.

    It may be a loan translation from German: Let’s not forget the etymology of easel.

  16. In the Wizard of Oz, the Sawhorse is the fastest mode of transportation (and a challenge for translators into other languages, too!).

    Conversely, some saw-horses may have been thought of as “very slow horses”. Dahl mentions that the word for sawbucks in Western Russian dialects (кляч) closely corresponded to кляча (old worn-out horse, jade), and he considered it a Polish borrowing. But it doesn’t seem to be used in Polish, and Vasmer considers it an Ukrainism, at which point it’s no longer clear which meaning was the original one.

  17. A $100 bill is also a benjamin, after Benjamin Franklin (whose face is on it).

  18. marie-lucie says:

    different animals in saw-bucks – why it’s “horses” in Mexico, “deer” in the US, and “goats” (кОзлы) in Russia?

    Isn’t saw(-)buck in America the same as saw horse in England?

    In French the word is le chevalet, lit. ‘little horse’, which also means ‘easel’ (the English word is a borrowing from the German equivalent of ‘donkey’). But apparently there is also a regional word for sawbuck, la chèvre ‘goat’ (fem).

    I see above that in various languages the word for the support refers to an old, slow, almost useless animal. The French word cheval is from Latin caballus apparently a Celtic borrowing, which also referred (or may have been borrowed to refer) to an old horse (the main Laitn word for ‘horse’ being equus). I wonder if the cab in caballus was related to the ‘cap in Latin capra ‘goat (fem)’?

  19. As an American, I would only call the board construction a “sawhorse,” although I would normally expect a present-day sawhorse to have an A-frame. Using “sawbuck” for the crossed boards sounds even more archaic than using “sawbuck” for a $10 bill.

  20. In French the word is le chevalet, lit. ‘little horse’, which also means ‘easel’ (the English word is a borrowing from the German equivalent of ‘donkey’). . . (t)he French word cheval is from Latin caballus apparently a Celtic borrowing

    Looks like donkeys have been around Europe for a long time. Per Wiki:
    Brezhoneg (Breton): azen; Cymraeg (Welsh): asyn; Gaeilge (Irish): asal; Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic): asal.

    All similar to English ass, German esel, Latin asinus, Spanish asno, Russian осёл, etc.

    Horse goes by a variety of names in the Celtic languages. Per Wiki:
    Brezhoneg (Breton): marc’h; Cymraeg (Welsh): ceffyl; Gaeilge (Irish): capall, also each; Gaelg (Manx): cabbyl; Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic): each; Kernowek (Cornish): margh; Sean-Ghaeilge (Old Irish): ech.

    Similarities to French cheval, Spanish caballo, etc., and Latin equus. AHD tells me that marc’h and margh are related to English mare.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks for these lists, PO!

  22. All–

    Latin “Caballus” may or may not be a loan from some now-extinct Celtic language, but the “caballus”-type forms in Modern Celtic languages are unanimously accepted to be loans from Latin (in some instances perhaps not borrowed directly), and not indigenous Celtic words.

    (Marie-Lucie: “Capra” is an indigenous Latin word, and even if “Caballus” is too, I doubt their initial syllables have anything in common etymologically: /p/ and /b/ remained quite distinct phonemes in all positions in the transition form Indo-European to Latin, as I recall).

    “Ech” and “Each”, on the other hand, are straightforward cognates of Latin “equus”. As for the words for “donkey” listed, I would not be surprised if ALL were borrowed from Latin “Asinus” (with a phonologically irregular shift from /n/ to /l/ for some of them): German “Esel” is exactly what we would expect the reflex of a Latin borrowed form *asilus to be (/a/ umlauted to /e/ through the influence of the following /i/ before the latter, being unstressed, was weakened to schwa: cf. “Etzel” as the German reflex of “Attila”, which I think was discussed on another thread here some time ago).

  23. And ‘donkey’ is a nickname for ‘Duncan’, brought forth to blot away the terrible Ass.

  24. Note that EQUUS survives in the feminine in most of the Romance words for ‘mare’: Spanish yegua, Catalan euga, Galician egua, Portuguese égua, Romanian iapă (with typical velar > labial shift). Occitan has both èga and cavala, with what distinction (semantic or regional or what not) I don’t know. On the other hand, French jument and Italian giumenta < Latin IŪMENTUM ‘beast of burden’ > Italian giumento id., Portuguese jumento ‘donkey’. To the CABALLUS words we can add Esperanto ĉevalo, fem. ĉevalino. German Stute ‘mare’ is from an OHG word for ‘herd of horses’, cognate to English stud, ultimately < PIE *sta- ‘stand’ (stallions still stand to stud in technical language). What gives with Danish and Norwegian hoppe I don’t know.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Caballus: Etienne, merci. I had always read that caballus was a Celtic word, and I know next to nothing about Celtic, let alone its evolution from PIE. I have Baldi’s Foundations of Latin which lists Celtic borrowings into Latin, but indeed caballus is not among them (nor is it mentioned anywhere in the book). Nevertheless, it looks sort of foreign in Latin.

  26. As for the words for “donkey” listed, I would not be surprised if ALL were borrowed from Latin “Asinus”

    Makes sense, given that the Romans probably encountered the donkey in North Africa, where it was first domesticated. If so, they likely took the word from a Berber or Semitic language, or possibly Egyptian/Coptic. Hebrew אתון aton is she-ass, a word with cognates in Arabic and Aramaic, and, according to BDB ‘As.’ — presumably Assyrian (Akkadian?). T and S(h) sometimes switch, as in English greeting and German Grüßen. (It’s common between Hebrew and Arabic, and Hebrew and Aramaic too.)

    Curiosities: Armenian for donkey is Էշ, es; Azerbaijani for African wild ass is eşşəyi; and Farsi for asinus is استران assran (?). Serbian for donkey is магарац, while Croatian is magarci. Perhaps the latter pair echo English mare.

  27. Serbian for donkey is магарац, while Croatian is magarci. Perhaps the latter pair echo English mare.
    It’s common across the Balkans, incl. Bulgarian and Romanian, and may have resulted from transposition of syllables in Slavic languages: comp. Albanian gomari, Greek γομάρι gomari (also γάιδαρος), presumably from archaic γόμος “load” (for a beast of burden).

  28. anhweol says:

    Etienne –

    is there any theory to explain the discrepancy between the ‘b’ of ‘caballus’ and the ‘-pp-‘ which must underlie Welsh ‘ceffyl’ (one would imagine that a form like *’cappallos would be required, from which the Irish ‘capall’ could then be borrowed); the e-y vocalism presumably also requires an -i- in some later syllable (perhaps from a nominative plural form?)?

  29. Farsi for asinus is استران assran (?).

    That’s astarān, plural of astar ‘mule,’ from Old Persian *asa-tara-, which is cognate with Sanskrit aśvatara-.

  30. Poking my way through Pokorny [“scanned and recognized by George Starostin”] [Pages 301-302, Root / lemma: ek̂u̯o-s (*hek̂u̯o-)], I see:

    1. Horses were often considered the most precioys sacrifice for the sea god. That is why from Root / lemma: akʷā- (correct ǝkʷā): ēkʷ- : `water, river’ derived Root / lemma: ek̂u̯o-s : `horse’.

    2.Old Indian áśva-ḥ, av. aspa- Old pers. asa- `horse’

    3. gr. ἵππος ds. m. f. (originally without Asper: ῎Αλκ-ιππος etc.). [Don’t Greek P and Latin QU at least sometimes correspond? Penta-Quinque?]

    4. toch. A yuk, Gen. yukes, В yakwe `horse’ with prothet. y [Didn’t somebody here recently say that Pokorny ignored Tocharian? Or might this be a Starostin addition?]

    5. Ru. kobýla `mare’, then Cz. komoň `horse’

    6. Indo-European reconstruction: kab-n-io-öö {1} (kom-n-io-öö) {2}

    7. References: WP. I 113, WH. I 412 f., 862, Trautmann 72, Schwyzer Gr. Gr. I 68, 301, 351, 499. [Who are WP and WH?]

  31. marie-lucie says:

    PO: 1. Horses were often considered the most precioys sacrifice for the sea god. That is why from Root / lemma: akʷā- (correct ǝkʷā): ēkʷ- : `water, river’ derived Root / lemma: ek̂u̯o-s : `horse’.

    Hm, I really wonder.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    The differences may be subtle, but in comparative linguistics every little detail counts.

  33. Horses were often considered the most precioys sacrifice for the sea god. That is why from Root / lemma: akʷā- (correct ǝkʷā): ēkʷ- : `water, river’ derived Root / lemma: ek̂u̯o-s : `horse’.

    That’s the kind of thing that gives comparativism a bad name, if you ask me. It’s exactly as plausible as Watkins’ old attempt to relate ek̂wo– `horse’ to kwon– ‘dog.’

  34. The Mexican equivalent Dos Equis for the Roman XX

    I’m confused. I used to think that the Mexican beer’s name had something to do with horses, but then I thought i learned that it simply meant “two X’s”.

  35. It’s exactly as plausible as Watkins’ old attempt to relate ek̂wo- `horse’ to kwon- ‘dog.’

    Whassa matter? Never heard of a dog and pony show?

    For the record, I too winced on reading that bit. Yet a search for evidence of horse sacrifice found a Wiki entry suggesting that just such a practice existed among the Proto Indo-Europeans. Doesn’t say anything about leading the horses to water though, pre- or post-sacrifice.

    If it’s Calvert Watkins you’re referring to, he rode off into the sunset just over a year ago, on March 20, 2013.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, horse sacrifice was common among some (Proto-)Indo-Europeans, and plenty of graves (such as kurgans) have been found, containing skeletons of horses as well as people, carefully arranged in specific positions. But I have never heard of horses being sacrificed to the god of the sea or even of water in general. Horses in the wild are animals of the open grassy plain, where they can run to their heart’s content, not animals of the seashore unless brought there by humans as domesticates. Sacrificing such animals to a sea god (assuming such a custom did exist) would be a secondary development in one part of the cultural domain, therefore unlikely to lead to a new name for the animal over a large part of the linguistic area, distant from any sea.

    In most areas where animal sacrifice was widely practiced (Rome, Greece, India, among others), sacrificial animals were killed, then burned or roasted and their cooked meat distributed to the priests or other attendees, yet I am not aware that any of the typical sacrifices were called by words related to those for ‘fire’ or ‘food’.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Caballus > it. cavallo, etc

    The Vocabulario Etimologico della lingua italiana mentions Lat caballus , some Romance derivatives, and also Late Greek kaballés, as well as “slav.” kobyla, kobilica ‘giumenta’ (mare). It mentions that some scholars have linked the words to Sanskrit c’bpala (sic) “rapido” and (from another Indian language) kavahúla ‘cammello’, but does not find these acceptable as cognates. Instead it says that the word is probably from Latium, borrowed from Celtic peoples.

  38. Poking my way through Pokorny [“scanned and recognized by George Starostin”] [Pages 301-302, Root / lemma: ek̂u̯o-s (*hek̂u̯o-)],”

    Is that the “Pokorny” one finds at the dnghu website? Don’t trust it, someone (Starostin(?)) has added all kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense to the original entries. From what you quote, the parts 1) (the sea-god stuff), 5) and 6) (Slavic kobyla etc and the reconstruction based on them) are not part of the original Pokorny article (IEW 301-302).

    WP is Walde-Pokorny’s “Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der indogermanischen Sprachen”, the predecessor of the IEW, published 1927-32; WH is Walde-Hofmann’s “Lateinisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch”, which has been called “not an etymological dictionary of Latin, but an Indo-European etymological dictionary sorted by Latin lemmata”.

    The Tocharian comparisons quoted are in the IEW; Pokorny quoted the Tocharian cognates that had been established at the time of the compilation of the IEW, it’s just that the number of securely established Tocharian and Anatolian cognates was still quite small then.

  39. Why doesn’t this comment section have a preview function? I hate publishing my typos and my html failures

  40. Yeah, sorry about that, it’s one of the few losses from moving to WordPress. But I’m always happy to take care of such things after the fact. I’ve fixed what I noticed — let me know if there’s anything else.

  41. Oh, thanks a lot – you’ve caught all of my mistakes.

  42. Anhweol: clearly, linking “caballus” and “ceffyl” involves phonological problems, whether you regard the words as loans or cognates. The fact that the words are found in Brythonic languages (Welsh, Cornish, Breton), which have a large borrowed Latin element, to the exclusion of cognates of Old Irish “ech”, makes it likelier to my mind that they are loanwords from Latin. But as others above have pointed out, there are phonological difficulties whatever one’s preferred scenario is. Thus, I cannot see any way to make the /pp/ which underlies the /f/ of “ceffyl” fit with the /b/ of “caballus”.

    Hat: actually, Watkins’ case for deriving “horse” from “dog” received a boost to my mind when I learned that the Plains Cree word for “horse” is MISTATIM, a compound of MIST “large, big” and ATIM “dog”. Apparently before the arrival of the horse in the Prairies large dogs were used to pull sleds and the like, so to refer to horses as “large dogs” came naturally to speakers of Plains Cree. It might be interesting to take a closer look at how horses were called wherever they were newly introduced, if only in order to properly evaluate how plausible various etymologies of *EKWOS within Proto-Indo-European are.

  43. des von bladet says:

    “In those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you’d say.”

  44. Is that the “Pokorny” one finds at the dnghu website? Don’t trust it, someone (Starostin(?)) has added all kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense to the original entries.

    Several years ago I downloaded an html version of “Pokorny.” Your comment prompted a little sleuthing, and it would appear the dnghu site was the source. Thanks for the caveat.

    A copy of the unpolluted work can be downloaded here, which I’m about to do.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: horse ‘big dog’

    This is not limited to Plains Cree, it also occurs in several languages in North America, at least. Calling the newly introduced horse ‘big dog’ makes sense because of the link to traditional transportation, and those words for ‘horse’ are of recent enough vintage to be quite clearly analyzable. But the circumstances of horse-human interaction in America a few centuries ago and in Eurasia during the PIE period are vastly different. There were dogs but no horses in America at the time of “contact”, the earlier horses on the continent having disappeared long before humans crossed over (by whatever means). When horses appeared, it was in the company and under the control of humans. In Eurasia the dog had been domesticated long before the horse, but herds of wild horses were a familiar sight at least on the plains. Surely there were words for ‘horse’ (including specialized ones depending on age and sex) long before the horse was used for any human purpose (except probably for food). As an example, IE languages have words for ‘deer’, ‘doe’ and ‘fawn’ even though these animals do not live with humans and are only sought by them as sources of meat (and possibly leather).

  46. Whoops. That link is to “Vol 2.” It seems that archive.org has arranged its viewable/downloadable copies in three “volumes,” though my recollection is that the dictionary was published as a single tome. Change the numeral in the URL to 1 or 3 to access the complete work. (This is a scan of the original, with the strengths and weaknesses that implies.)

  47. Thanks very much for that — I had no idea Pokorny was freely available, and now I have my own pdf copy!

  48. Surely there were words for ‘horse’ (including specialized ones depending on age and sex) long before the horse was used for any human purpose (except probably for food). As an example, IE languages have words for ‘deer’, ‘doe’ and ‘fawn’ even though these animals do not live with humans and are only sought by them as sources of meat (and possibly leather).
    OTOH it isn’t impossible for a language to also have different names for domesticated breeds and wild animals, or for domesticated subtypes used for different purposes? Names for the dogs show frequent examples of replacement sweeps…
    But if we take Al-Magar excavation results at the face value (pictures e.g. here) then we ought to assume that horses or horse-like animals like perhaps onagers have been used by the humans for transportation millennia before the mass-scale domestication in the Steppes North of Black and Caspian seas… so the idea of bridling horses wasn’t a total novelty for the humankind when the humans finally got it right on a wide scale?

  49. marie-lucie says:

    Dmitry, I am not an expert, but you might look up this site:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestication_of_the_horse

    which seems quite comprehensive and also lists a number of references. Nowhere is an equivalency or even a similarity suggested between ‘dog’ and ‘horse’.

    The earliest written reference to a horse seems to be from Sumerian where the name meant ‘ass of the mountains’ (‘mountains’ here probably meaning ‘wilderness’, as opposed to both cultivated areas and deserts). This was at a time of horses being used for riding, which was followed by the period of chariot warfare.

  50. Yes, you can imagine that the human historical geneticists are very interested in the horse domestication too, given the role the horse should have played in the expansions of peoples. All evidence points to much later domestication of horses than of almost all domestic animals of value, and especially the dogs. The reason I mentioned Al-Magar (have you scrolled the article down to the intriguing figurine pictures?) is that it *might” move the dates of domestication further into the past (like 9 kya) if it pans out – which still leaves the horse a relative newcomer in the roster of domesticated mammals of Eurasia. Alas, there hasn’t been any work of note on ancient horse DNA from bones / teeth, and such a work in the future is certain to bring much more clarity!

  51. I had no idea Pokorny was freely available, and now I have my own pdf copy!

    People post the most wonderful links here. You should visit this site more often!

    There are many more old dictionaries at archive.org. Not long ago I downloaded an English translation of Kluge’s etymological dictionary of German. (The first letter of the headwords is in Blackletter, which means more care when searching, but it’s still a great book to have.)

  52. marie-lucie says:

    Actually, I had barely noticed that you had a link, and only read it just now. after your second comment I wonder if the 9000 years date is correct? If so, it pushes back a lot more things than just the domestication of the horse, given the evidence of artifacts and techniques found at Al-Magar.

  53. mountains’ here probably meaning ‘wilderness’

    A possible parallel in the Semitic languages that would strengthen the connection:
    Arabic jabal or jebel means mountain (cf Lameen’s site Jabal al-Lughat / Climbing the Mountain of Languages). Hebrew gvul means border, as does gubulim in Punic.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    As for the words for “donkey” listed, I would not be surprised if ALL were borrowed from Latin “Asinus” (with a phonologically irregular shift from /n/ to /l/ for some of them)

    I’ve seen the /l/ blamed on a diminutive asellus (no idea if it’s attested). I’m not sure if that could explain the umlaut in German, though.

    Serbian for donkey is магарац, while Croatian is magarci.

    No, the latter is the singular of the former.

    1. Horses were often considered the most precioys sacrifice for the sea god. That is why from Root / lemma: akʷā- (correct ǝkʷā): ēkʷ- : `water, river’ derived Root / lemma: ek̂u̯o-s : `horse’.

    What… no. The “aqua” word cannot even be reconstructed for PIE.

    The “equus” word might be related to “swift” (“traditionally reconstructed as *ōḱú-, with an initial *ō which conceals some puzzling combination of PIE vowels and laryngeals, not yet unravelled to everyone’s satisfaction”, from the link above), or it might be a loan from something closely related to Proto-Caucasian that had lost nasal consonants in front of affricates; the Proto-Caucasian reconstruction for “horse” is */ɦɨ(ː)nt͡ʃwi/ (and/or */-e/), which might explain the phonetically weird *[kʲw] cluster in the PIE version. Source: the following fascinating paper (mostly footnote 72 on p. 426), of which I once downloaded the pdf even though neither Google nor Google Scholar find it anymore.
    A. Kassian (2010): Hattic [!!!] as a Sino-Caucasian language. Ugarit-Forschungen 41: 309–447.

    The earliest written reference to a horse seems to be from Sumerian where the name meant ‘ass of the mountains’ (‘mountains’ here probably meaning ‘wilderness’, as opposed to both cultivated areas and deserts)

    Or perhaps “donkey from beyond the mountains”?

  55. Alexei Kassian’s paper on Hattic is available here. I’m sure we discussed Kassian’s position on LH before when mulling the Atkinsian analysis suggesting that the PIE homeland was to the South of the Black Sea rather than in the steppes to the North. (I already linked to Kasian’s blog entry about horse-words and wheel-words back then, but his blog is in Russian). A bit longer snippet from his Hattic paper:

    Gimbutas’ Pontic-Caspian steppe model (the kurgan theory), placing the IE homeland to the east of Dniepr, appears precluded due to a significant number of Proto-Narrow IE (or even Proto-Indo-Hittite) roots and stems denoting forest, various trees, hills/mountains together with numerous agricultural and stockbreeding terms which is strikingly opposite to the absence of typical steppe vocabulary…

    The non-steppe homeland of the Indo-Europeans can also be proven by the fact, noted in Старостин, 1988/2007, 315 f., Starostin, 2009, 80, that IE *ekwo- ‘horse’ (which can be not a Narrow IE, but Indo-Hittite term, see the discussion in EDHIL, 237 ff. [A. Kloekhorst: Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon. Leiden, 2008]) seems to be borrowed from an ancient language of the NCauc. stock discussed above, cf. its NCauc. descendant *ɦɨ[n]čw ĭ (~-ĕ) ‘horse’ …

    From the archaeological viewpoint, M. Gimbutas’ mounted warriors from the steppes, who sweep away Chalcolithic “Old Europe”, also appear a myth—see the extended discussion in Kohl, 2007, 51, 126–144.

    BTW I was reading on very different topic (“Could Paleolithic paintings have been a cartoon strip-like, narrative series of visual snapshots”) and it made me realize that wild horses have been quite familiar to the inhabitants of Europe before 30 thousand years ago.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    wild horses have been quite familiar to the inhabitants of Europe before 30 thousand years ago.

    I am not qualified to evaluate dates, but it seems obvious to me that indeed the early inhabitants of the grassy areas of Europe must have been quite familiar with herds of wild horses (and other equines) long before taming/domestication.

  57. If nothing else, horses were certainly food animals, as indeed they continue to be in parts of Europe.

  58. In the Hattic paper there is the following remark (section 2.1.1):

    Attested Hattic chronologically is more ancient than the late Proto-WCauc. language by almost 1000 years. Therefore it is possible to compare Hattic forms
    only with the WCauc. forms which can be assuredly reconstructed for the Proto-WCauc. level.

    (I have deleted a comma after “WCauc. forms” which almost certainly is a result of L2 interference and confuses the issue.)

    The author proceeds to quote some 18th-century proposals for cognates between Russian and German that are pretty clearly bogus. But as far as I can see there is no justification for the “Therefore”. There is no reason why a shared Slavic-Germanic term (or let us say a PIE term) could not surface only in Russian and in German. It will be less secure than one with other cognates in Slavic and/or Germanic languages, but not logically impossible.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    It will be less secure than one with other cognates in Slavic and/or Germanic languages, but not logically impossible.

    It’ll be so much less secure that it would be very weak evidence that PIE ever existed in the first place. Thus, when Bengtson or (God forbid!) Ruhlen do such “reaching down”, their colleagues roll their eyes or worse. Similarly, Kassian argues, Hattic words shouldn’t be compared to forms in individual West Caucasian languages of today; after all, Hattic was spoken “almost 1000 years” before Proto-West-Caucasian must have been. He just overstates it a bit.

  60. But the existence of PIE (or WC) is not in doubt. Consider the pre-Hittite version of IE (“core IE”), which was a well-established language family. If a feature exists in German and Russian alone of the core IE languages, it might be a core PIE feature or it might be coincidence: certainly it would not be justified to reconstruct it for core PIE on such slender evidence. But if it were also found in some Anatolian language then it would count as evidence for Proto-Indo-Hittite as well as core PIE.

  61. David Marjanović says:

    But the existence of PIE (or WC) is not in doubt.

    The position of Hattic is in doubt, and that’s the point of the paper.

  62. Of course Hattic’s position is in doubt. We seem to be talking past one another.

    My point is that to establish IE as a family and to reconstruct PIE, we look at data from the languages we think are IE languages. We do not have to reconstruct PGmc, PSlav, PItal, etc. etc. first. Indeed Piotr has argued that such reconstructions on reconstructions are methodologically unsound.

  63. marie-lucie says:

    JC: My point is that to establish IE as a family and to reconstruct PIE, we look at data from the languages we think are IE languages. We do not have to reconstruct PGmc, PSlav, PItal, etc. etc. first. Indeed Piotr has argued that such reconstructions on reconstructions are methodologically unsound.

    Having had to wrestle with similar points myself (not in IE), I entirely agree with you and Piotr. Insisting on “reconstructions on reconstructions” supposes that the first reconstructions are valid, something which cannot be taken for granted if the reconstructors (and the amount of relevant data) have been too few for a consensus to evolve. Even PIE, reconstructed through the work of dozens if not hundreds of linguists over two centuries and more, had to be re-reconstructed when more data came to light.

  64. David Marjanović says:

    My point is that to establish IE as a family and to reconstruct PIE, we look at data from the languages we think are IE languages. We do not have to reconstruct PGmc, PSlav, PItal, etc. etc. first. Indeed Piotr has argued that such reconstructions on reconstructions are methodologically unsound.

    Ah, another topic. 🙂 Fine with me.

    In biology we reconstruct every node in the tree at once, together with – in the same step as – the very shape of the tree. That’s the only really sound method. (…I’ll be happy to elaborate later, and of course no method is immune to the law of “garbage in, garbage out”…)

    Of course, it’s a very young method, and it requires computing power that has only been available for 30 years at the most (for a small dataset you can do it by hand, it just takes weeks or months). While phylogenetics in biology was an art rather than a science till then (the decades-long search for reliable characters came up empty-handed, leading to Americanist-like phylopessimism), phylogenetics in linguistics was a science from the start. Basically the first thing it did was to reconstruct one node, PIE, without even trying to reconstruct either any other node in the IE tree or the very shape of that tree. This is not a sound method: to use hypothetical examples, the last common ancestor of Proto-Kentum and Proto-Satəm would be quite different from the last common ancestor of Proto-Anatolian and Proto-Indo-Tocharian, and both would be quite different from the last common ancestor of Proto-Decem and Proto-Taíhun. See a graphic illustration of this problem in this presentation (open access, and scroll to the top to see the author), from slide 22 onward.

    Furthermore, from the article you link to:

    Proto-Indo-European was not reconstructed by comparing Proto-Indo-Iranian, Proto-Slavic, Proto-Italic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Anatolian, etc., with one another. It has always been reconstructed by comparing data extracted from a multitude of documented languages such as Vedic, Avestan, Old Church Slavonic, Serbo-Croatian, Latin, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Albanian, Classical Greek, Biblical Gothic, Old Norse, Old High German, Hittite, Luwian, and so forth.

    This is of course true, but it began the other way around in the mid-19th century: people wanted to compare Proto-Indic, Proto-Iranian, Proto-Slavic, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Italic etc., and basically pretended that Sanskrit was Proto-Indic (which is apparently true for Vedic Sanskrit), Avestan (with, later, a smattering of Old Persian) was Proto-Iranian, Old Church Slavic was Proto-Slavic, Gothic was Proto-Germanic, Latin was Proto-Italic, and so on – arguably just one step up from Schlegel’s assumption that Sanskrit was PIE. Together with the assumption that some languages are generally more conservative than others, this meant that this pool of privileged languages grew only slowly. IEists have always been all over Lithuanian, but have only in recent years “discovered” Latvian which preserves a few things better (e.g. its “broken tone” goes straight back to laryngeals); and “Anatolian” and “Hittite” still tend to be used as synonyms.

    I obviously agree that building reconstructions on reconstructions multiplies the uncertainty. The traditional IEist workaround, however, replaces these uncertainties by other uncertainties while ignoring the question of the shape of the tree, and it isn’t available to language families that lack documented ancient languages.

    Finally, reconstructions built on reconstructions are uncertain to a degree that must be kept in mind, but that doesn’t automatically make them worthless.

    Also from Piotr’s article:

    There is considerable feedback from reconstructed PIE to reconstructed PGmc. To give a historically important example (one among many), for more than fifty years in the 19th century a large set of exceptions to Grimm’s Law remained unexplained, until it occurred to Karl Verner to look for evidence in outgroup languages such as Classical Greek and Vedic. The conditioning environment of the Proto-Germanic process now known as Verner’s Law was obliterated in Germanic itself, but preserved elsewhere.

    As pointed out in a comment by Áhann Áhim (along with other things I’m saying here), that’s not an example. Grimm’s and Verner’s Laws both describe changes that happened somewhere along the way between the Proto-Germanic node and the split of the Germanic branch from its closest relative, whichever that was (…from what I gather, Italo-Celtic seems to be the best candidate at the moment, but not by very much). They explain how Proto-Germanic came to be, not what it was synchronically; they make sense of Proto-Germanic; but their discovery changed nothing about the reconstruction of Proto-Germanic.

  65. I concede, of course, the relativity of wrong. But I am also very doubtful of methodologies that pile Ossa on Pelion (or vice versa, depending on the version of the myth you choose) in a vain attempt to storm Heaven. That way lies Greenburg and Proto-World.

    I also think that Germanic is an Eastern language, the sister group to the satem languages, and that its Western appearance is the result of massive borrowing (homoplasy). This is consistent with the pike having paid for the death of Heidrek under Harvað-fells (the cliffs of the Carpathians, per Grimm’s Law) as recently as the 4th C.

  66. David Marjanović says:

    That way lies Greenburg and Proto-World.

    Perhaps, but the distinguishing feature of “multilateral comparison” is that it does not apply the comparative method to reconstructions (or anything else). The Moscow School has, as of yet, gone no further than an extremely preliminary version of “Borean” that they’re extremely cautious about.

    its Western appearance is the result of massive borrowing (homoplasy)

    Could be. Not many such “Western” features have been discovered or scrutinized much.

    The pieces of evidence I had in mind in particular are described in this pdf (bibliographical information here): Italic, Celtic and Germanic shortened long syllables in front of the one that was stressed in PIE, and (before they all switched to initial stress) they shared “a single unified system of verbal accent, seriously different from the” one that is reconstructed for PIE based on Greek and Vedic. Of course these features, too, could have been borrowed; everything could have been – there is no reliable character.

    (And I still haven’t tried to read the whole paper, I’ve only skimmed it. It has 72 pages and is in Russian except for the abstract, which I quote. Most of it consists of long lists of examples.)

    Harvað-fells (the cliffs of the Carpathians, per Grimm’s Law [and Verner’s])

    …That’s stunning. I had no idea of the saga, let alone its linguistic content.

    However, the Wikipedia article says the saga mentions the Dniepr – as a decidedly unshifted Danpar-. On the one hand, this form further confirms that the story is really old, because it can’t have been borrowed from Slavic As We Know It; on the other hand, it means that you’re postulating that the ancestors of whoever wrote the saga down retained enough mythical knowledge of the Carpathians across maybe 2000 years to identify them as the mountains in a story about Goths and Huns, but either did not retain such knowledge about the impressively big rivers in the plain next to the Carpathians or never had it in the first place. That’s by no means impossible, but perhaps a more parsimonious alternative can be found.

    Your hypothesis does fit the results of this proof-of-concept paper, which performed a phylogenetic analysis of IE using exclusively lexical data (presence/absence of cognates of words for Swadesh List meanings). Specifically, the paper found a western branch containing Italic, Celtic, Germanic and Albanian to be the sister-group of an eastern “core Satəm” branch containing Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian. I don’t trust this more than the authors do… but… 🙂

  67. Okay, John Cowan, David, and whoever may be following this thread: I have to jump into this discussion…

    I think you are both chasing a ghost. The “correct” tree diagram of Indo-European is not recoverable today, if by tree diagram you refer to a historical reality.

    If you look at better-known and better-studied language families, such as Romance or Indo-Aryan (where in both instances the Proto-language is amply attested and written documentation is far more complete than in the case of Indo-European), it is remarkable how little consensus as to the “correct” tree diagram exists. The reason is simple. The question is wholly meaningless, as Antoine Meillet once pointed out.

    Within a dialect continuum, which is what Indo-Aryan and Romance remained until recently, and which is what Indo-European must have remained for a long time, divergence *and convergence* are both found at different points in time and space within the continuum. As a result the historical reality which philological evidence reveals and the synchronic reality of varieties spoken today exhibits a hopeless mismatch.

    Thus, among the Romance varieties spoken in France Gascon is, synchronically, a variety of Occitan, and the basic divide in France is found between Occitan (oc) and French (oil) varieties. It has been shown recently that a mere fifteen centuries (or so) ago the situation was wholly different: Gascon existed as a separate Romance variety at a time when there was no tangible difference between (the rest of ) Occitan and French. Basically, centuries after Gascon had broken off from its neighbors French and Occitan began to diverge, and Occitan influenced Gascon heavily enough for the latter to become a mere dialect of the former.

    (The latter process is common within dialect continua but impossible when it comes to clearly differentiated languages: Anglicized French or Gallicized English are not and cannot become dialects of French or English.)

    The problem is that *there is nothing about Gascon today which points to its distinctiveness predating the French/Occitan divide*. That is why you will never, in “classical” classifications of the Romance family, find Gascon as a separate branch: there is no *synchronic* evidence within Gascon to support it. This despite the fact that Romance scholars of the time had access to Latin, whereas as the joke goes no language has changed more over the past century than Proto-Indo-European.

    In like fashion I strongly suspect that if we could go aboard a Wellsian time machine and explore the early Indo-European continuum we would find a mismatch between how distinctive various dialects were back then and how distinctive from one another various later forms of these dialects of Indo-European later became.

    Jumping back to an earlier discussion on this thread: Paul Ogden: I checked my sources, and the Celtic forms you quoted are all accepted as deriving from Latin ASINUS. As for CABALLUS, its etymology, and its relationship to the Brythonic words: there seems to remain extreme uncertainty on the topic.

  68. The saga has multiple layers, and exists in three sharply divergent manuscripts. As a “saga of ancient times”, it has pieces of poems embedded in the prose, poems which it seems clear the prose author (of he 9-10C, presumably) barely understood. The prose itself is incoherent and rambling, being an account of the fate of the cursed dwarf-sword Tyrfing (with embedded poems), a prose version of a pan-European folktale about a man who ignores his father’s good advice, a riddle-game (the only one extant in Old Norse), and finally the battle of Goths and Huns that we are concerned with here. The Heidreks in the different sections have barely anything in common.

    The Harvath-fells reference comes from what is clearly one of the oldest and most obscure strata of the text, preceded by prose that is clearly intended to rationalize it. After explaining that Heidrek was assassinated by persons unknown and the sword Tyrfing stolen, and his son Angantýr made king in his place, the text says (in Christopher Tolkien’s edition and translation):

    A little while after the assembly Angantýr departed alone, searching for these men [the killers]. One evening he was walking down to the sea by the river called Grafá, and there he saw three men in a fishing-boat; presently he saw one of the men catch a fish, and heard him call out to one of his companions to pass him the bait-knife to cut off the fish’s head; but the other man said that he could not spare it.

    Then the first one said, ‘Take the sword from under the head-board, and pass it to me,’ and taking it he drew it, and cut off the fish’s head; then he spoke a verse:

    Þess galt hon gedda
    fyrir Grafár ósi
    er Heiðrekr var veginn
    undir Harvaða fjǫllum

    (“The pike has paid
    by the pools of Grafá
    for Heidrek’s slaying
    under Harvad-fells”).

    Then Angantýr knew at once that it was Tyrfing.

    So he waits until they’ve gone to sleep, kills them all, and goes home with the sword.

    Now the river Grafá, like Harvað-fells, is otherwise completely unknown to this tradition or any other; what is more, it is unreconstructible. By contrast, the name Danpar shows up more than once in the prose stratum, as well as in a verse shortly after the passage above, showing that it is a much stronger part of the tradition than Harvað. Furthermore, the names of the Dniepr and Dniestr are Sarmatian/Alanian/Ossetic (Eastern Iranian), meaning the rivers on the far side and the near side respectively. They may well have been borrowed into Germanic (and then lost except for these few instances) after Grimm’s Law took effect.

    In short, the prose author had no idea what any of these names meant except that they were associated with the Heidrek tradition: the battle of Goths and Huns took place in Never-Never-Land as far as he was concerned. This is not the preservation of a single story for 600 (not 2000) years. It’s all bits and pieces from different times and places.

    As for the Carpathians themselves, it’s not clear whether the underlying root is *(s)ker- or *kwerp- (English sharp and warp (v.) respectively), referring to the topography or the overall twistiness of the range as the case may be.

  69. Etienne, the very fact that this history of Gascon can be discerned at all means that the anti-realist position is, er, unrealistic. If modern Gascon is ancient Gascon massively influenced by Occitan, then modern Germanic may likewise be seen as very ancient Germanic heavily influenced by Italo-Celtic. After all, there is no doubt that Aranese is Gascon and that English is Ingvaeonic, despite what has happened to both of them in recent times.

  70. John Cowan: Actually, this recent discovery about Gascon was made on the basis of hitherto-unexamined philological evidence (basically, isolated Gascon words and place-names in Gascony, attested in early medieval Latin texts, which prove that a number of distinctive sound changes which set off Gascon from other Romance varieties had taken place long before Occitan and French had themselves undergone the sound changes which differentiate them so spectacularly). Without this evidence we would have had no way of knowing that Gascon was the first variety to split off within the Romance dialect continuum in Gaul, we would have had no way of knowing that originally Gascon and the remainder of Occitan were separate varieties.

    About the Carpathians: there is a pre-Latin word /krap/ or /karp/ with the meaning “rock/mountain” which has spread over much of the Romance continuum: Albanian “krapë” (rock) may be indigenous, but forms such as “crep”/”crepa” in Ladin (with the meaning “Mountain”, and where the /e/ may go back to an earlier /a/, making the similarity to Albanian that much greater) suggest the possibility that the word may have entered Proto-Albanian as a Latin loanword, and in turn that Latin itself borrowed the word, possibly from some now wholly unknown language, quite possibly non-Indo-European.

  71. David Marjanović says:

    Within a dialect continuum, which is what Indo-Aryan and Romance remained until recently, and which is what Indo-European must have remained for a long time

    I’ve often seen this asserted, but I have to wonder if it’s a circular argument and self-fulfilling prophecy: there’s little and conflicting evidence about the IE tree, so IE must have been a dialect continuum that split into many branches simultaneously, so there’s no point in looking for more evidence about the IE tree or for ways to explain the conflicts, so there’s little and conflicting known evidence about the IE tree…

    Obviously, Romance (except Sardinian, I guess) is an example of such a dialect-continuum situation (and West and East Slavic are likely another, and so on). But such a situation seems to require that a single, poorly differentiated language spreads very quickly across a very large area, then people stop moving, and then local innovations happen more or less at random. There isn’t really much evidence that PIE (or Proto-Neo-IE without Anatolian and Tocharian) did such a thing, is there?

    Of course there’s the Kurgan scenario where the horse, the wheel and the language spread rather quickly throughout the Eurasian steppe. But what about the European forest (from sea to shining sea!) or the Mediterranean coast? Shouldn’t we expect a more treelike structure at least in those areas? And why do Indo-Iranian and Iranian, whose protolanguages were certainly spoken by horse warrior types in open landscapes, have such a well-developed tree shape?

    Finally, to preempt questions about my background, I should mention that there are a few cases in biology where a tree is not strictly dichotomous (a “hard polytomy”*). One is a cluster of lizard species on Mediterranean coasts and islands: at one of the occasions when the Mediterranean dried out, a single species spread all over the place, and when the water came back (an event that takes mere centuries) the populations on the highest peaks suddenly found themselves isolated, giving rise to 8 species that are all equally closely related to each other. Two others are parts of the radiations of mammals and birds after the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary mass extinction: artiodactyls, perissodactyls, carnivorans + pangolins and bats are related in different ways according to different retroposon insertions, reconcilable only if we assume what’s called incomplete lineage sorting, which I’m too tired to explain now but which requires multiple splits of populations simultaneously or in very quick succession; the case in birds involves an even larger number of lineages.

    * A “soft” one is the result of insufficient evidence.

  72. David: there is actually some evidence (see below) that late Proto-Indo-European must have been such a continuum. Meaning that the situation we observe in Romance and Indo-Aryan (on the latter, Colin Masica, in an appendix to his fine 1991 book THE INDO-ARYAN LANGUAGES, gives a summary of attempts at an internal classification of Indo-Aryan, and shows just how frustrating a continuum can be to linguists) may well have existed for Indo-European.

    As a result we might well end up with a scholarly consensus as to what the “real” tree of Indo-European languages is, and which may not correspond to any historical reality, unlike other trees: that Indo-Aryan and Romance languages each have a common ancestor (Sanskrit and Latin, respectively), which in both cases is also not the common ancestor of Slavic or Germanic, is something which we can be sure corresponds to historical reality.

    And yes, there is some evidence that Proto-Indo-European made up a continuum for a time: the Venetic language, for example, spoken roughly half-way between Rome and the assumed homeland of Proto-Germanic, is very Latin-like in its diachronic phonology, but has an accusative first person singular pronoun MEGO, which corresponds to nothing in Latin but which is a straightforward cognate of Proto-Germanic *MEK or German MICH. Tellingly, there seems to be very little in Venetic which is not found in its neighbors.This kind of “mixedness” is EXACTLY what we would find in the case of an old continuum, and not at all what we would expect to find in a case of rapid diversification into separate branches.

  73. A dialect continuum isn’t polytopy, however. There was undoubtedly a time when Proto-Sardinian was continuous with the rest of Vulgar Latin, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t branch off first.

  74. David Marjanović says:

    I was aware of Venetic mego, but I wouldn’t give that much weight to a single word. Borrowing is rather unlikely for such a pronoun, but if the analogy that turned *egō/*mē into *egō/*megō happened once, it can also have happened twice. If all else is equal, it’s of course more parsimonious to assume that it happened once rather than twice, but all else is not equal: Venetic looks like a fairly well-behaved Italic language.

  75. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: [Venetic] accusative first person singular pronoun MEGO, which corresponds to nothing in Latin but which is a straightforward cognate of Proto-Germanic *MEK or German MICH.

    So, is Germanic -*ek here cognate with Latin ego? But Venetic (apparently) does not have a 2nd person counterpart tego. Using mego as a reinforcement of me sounds plausible, but I agree with David that it can have occurred quite independently of Germanic.

  76. David Marjanović says:

    So, is Germanic -*ek here cognate with Latin ego?

    Yes.

    But Venetic (apparently) does not have a 2nd person counterpart tego.

    Do you know if that’s attested?

  77. marie-lucie says:

    David: I don’t know much about Venetic except what’s in Baldi’s Foundations of Latin and the Wiki article on Venetic language, neither of which is very long. Given the nature of the Venetic documents (short inscriptions) there does not seem to be any attestation of a 2nd person pronoun, although such a pronoun must have existed, as te and/or tego. Thus, mego (perhaps mexo) stands alone until further notice.

  78. Anglicized French or Gallicized English are not and cannot become dialects of French or English.

    Actually, that’s not so inconceivable. There are varieties of Anatolian Greek which are descended from the Turkish-L1 Greek that Orthodox priests learned in order to say the liturgy in Orthodox villages, which by elite dominance became first the prestige and then the usual form of Greek spoken there. After the population exchange, these varieties fell to Contemporary Standard Modern Greek, but it didn’t have to be so.

  79. January First-of-May says:

    Just wanted to clarify a misconception from 2004…

    A while back a poster mentioned “two bits.” Interestingly that term comes from our own ‘un-developed’ West. Before the banks moved West, during the mining era, people would trade using the gold that they mined. They’d break nuggets up into small pieces (called ‘bits’) and use them as tender. The value of a ‘bit’ was later ‘set’ at about 12 cents. Hence, two-bits was a quater.

    No, it actually comes from the so-called Spanish dollar.

    In the 17th and 18th century, after the discovery of huge amounts of silver at Potosi, Bolivia, the Spanish started to make a ludicrous amount of colonial silver coins, which traded well outside of their actual colonies, and became the main medium of exchange in the would-be USA.
    Those coins came in denominations of 8, 4, 2, 1, 1/2 and 1/4 reales, but the fractions were a lot less common than the full 8s, a.k.a. “pieces of eight” (which happened to correspond well to European thalers, i.e. dollars). So for needs of commerce people started to cut the 8 reales into halves, quarters, and eighths (like little coin pizza slices) – it is those slices, of 1 real each, that were known as bits.

    Of course, the US dollar was, at least originally, based on the Spanish dollar (thus the name); and since the early US coins were not minted in particularly large amounts, especially for small denominations (someone calculated that up to 1820 not enough dimes had been minted yet for every US citizen to own one; half dimes of 5 cents were even rarer), commerce in Spanish dollars and bits continued for a long time (officially until, IIRC, 1857, when it became illegal to use foreign currency as US money; unofficially, in the West, probably for a few more years even after that).
    As such, the “bit” became an accepted unit of currency corresponding to 1/8 of a dollar, and it persisted long enough for “two bits” to be accepted slang for a quarter. (IIRC, it is not uncommon for currency slang terms to refer to their equivalents in long-obsolete money, anyway.)

    And 12 cents in gold, even under 19th century prices, would have been an extremely tiny amount, anyway (something along the lines of 0.2 grams). There were, in fact, Californian gold 1/4 dollar pieces – and they are really teensy tiny – but I have never heard of anything smaller.

    …To the best of my knowledge, the only country that actually denominated their currency in bits was the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) in the early 20th century. Their “bits” apparently corresponded to 1/5 of a cent each. No, I have no idea why.
    And, IIRC, there is no connection to modern computing “bits” (and their grouping into 8) either.

  80. Interesting, thanks!

  81. Mark Twain describes how in old San Francisco the smallest price of an article of commerce was one bit, meaning that if you paid with a quarter you got a dime in change (a “long bit”), but if you paid with a dime, you got no change (a “short bit”). These two kinds of transactions tended to cancel out. He did, however, discover a species of arbitrage to escape this convention: go to the post office, buy a 5-cent stamp with a quarter, and get two dimes, with which you could buy two beers (or whatever) and send a letter for free.

  82. Many silver (and gold) coins of the era were stamped with patters that marked how they should be accurately quartered. Often, the markings were, in theory, a religious cross. However, for some designs, there was simply a fourfold division of the artwork. This ensured that people knew they were getting a true quarter of the coin’s precious metal. Not really understanding how money worked, virtually everyone wanted to be, in principle, to melt the coins down, even if there was no possibility of most ordinary people doing that in practice.

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