Earning Our Bread

A radio show in the US that focuses on economic issues, published something last week they call “Money slang: Marketplace’s urban finance dictionary.” The dictionary raises a few issues that I think are interesting and one that I want to check out using COHA.

The first interesting issue is what they choose to include. They use “urban” in the title and have a quite a few words that either emerge from or are popularized in hip hop and rap like Benjamins (Sean Combs and Notorious B.I.G.) or bling (B.G.). Then we have tuppence, which is not only not from hip hop (obviously) but doesn’t seem to me to be particularly slangy (from the OED):

The hodgepodge nature of the list raises the issue of how the compilers are defining “slang.” Slang is a notoriously messy category. Is it the newness of the words that matter? Or is it the community of speakers that matter–namely youth? Or is it the words’ use for social grouping rather than something like work or eluding authorities? All of these are questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers. If you’re interested in such things, you should check out Adams.

The other issue that I wanted to explore in more detail has to do with the purported origins of some of these words. Determining the etymology of slang is tough. Particularly before computer-mediated communication, slang was primarily coined and circulated in spoken discourse, which of course leaves little historical record. We rely, then, on written records, and by the time a slang word makes it into print, it has likely been circulating elsewhere for a while.

A related problem is that popular treatments like this article sometimes circulate false (or folk) etymologies. And there is an example here that I wanted to check out because the cited word origin seemed unlikely and because I thought it posed a challenging problem for using corpora.

The entry that caught my eye was for bread. Its says this:

Bread — May have originated from jazz great Lester Young. He is said to have asked “How does the bread smell?” when asking how much a gig was going to pay.

The authors have taken care to hedge their contention with the modal may, but the story of Lester Young struck me as perhaps apocryphal. So I thought it would be fun to investigate.

Bread as slang for money is a challenging search as its meaning as food is much more common. So we need to find ways to sort out the different uses. One strategy is to think about how the different uses might have different collocational patterns. One such pattern occurs with verbs. Unfortunately, one common verb, make, isn’t of much help, since you can “make bread” in both senses. As an alternative, I thought I’d try earn. A search for bread collocating with earn within four tokens to the left or right yields this result:

Most of the concordance lines are of this type from 1856:

workshops at the expense of the state, in which able-bodied citizens could earn their bread. Thus the people were taxed exorbitantly to maintain a costly and cumbersome and corrupting

This use is somewhat different from the slang use. It has a more generalized meaning of sustenance (as opposed to the specific meaning of money), and likely comes from Biblical metaphor “daily bread.” However, the pattern of collocation with earn and with work-related terms seems like a short semantic leap to the more restricted meaning of money, as it does in this concordance line from 1959:

I mean I ought to be out getting a job, man. Earning some bread for the old lady. Got to have money, got to have a job

My guess is that the slang is the result of semantic narrowing from an already existing metaphorical use of bread. But like I said, documenting the precise origin isn’t easy.