With the exception of sex, drink and food there are more slang words for money in the English language than for any other thing.
Perhaps due to being the UK’s financial centre since commerce began, most of the slang terms for money originated in London.
In the old East End of London, cockney rhyming slang produced some of the most creative terms and phrases for money. Bees (bees and honey), lolly, readies, folding, wonga and hundreds more terms have emerged from Bow to Wapping and Bethnal Green to Whitechapel over the centuries.
The popularity of different terms comes and goes, new variations crop up and older ones are revived with bewildering regularity.
Back in the 1970s you could ask someone to lend you “a lady” without out it being construed as an illicit request. In the decade that gave us glam rock and punk rock “a lady” meant 5 (Lady Godiva – fiver).
For cockneys and mockneys in the 1990s, if something cost “a bag” it was 1000 (bag of sand – grand). More recently, in gambling circles, “a biscuit” has come to mean 1000. This is not exactly rhyming slang, it’s referring to the size of larger casino chips – which look like biscuits.
Borrowing a pony to boost your macaroni
To confuse things further, over time, slang terms for money begin to refer to other slang terms rather than to an actual thing. In the last 5 years it has become popular to use “macaroni” to mean 25. There is no direct connection between “macaroni” and 25, but it does rhyme with pony…
“A pony” has been used to mean 25 since the 18th century and is still popular today. However, theories about the origins of its use are hotly contested.
Some say 25 was the price of a small horse in the 1700s, others argue it’s because there was a picture of a horse on an Indian 25 rupee note at the time. There are even those that trace it back to biblical stories – far too convoluted to go into here.
Whatever the origin, it keeps on changing and maybe one day in the future etymologists will be arguing over why people in early 21st century used “macaroni” to mean 25 – I’m going to get my theory in early and say, given the current rate of inflation, it was the price of a packet of pasta in 2012.
Wonga, wadge and moola
Immigration and travel has had an impact on the words we use for money. Yiddish speaking immigrants from Russia and Germany in the late 1900s and early 20 century had a huge impact on the English language.
It was common to hear many Londoners refer to their money as shekels right up until the early 1960s.
Moola/moolah is as popular today as it was in the 1930s. “Moola” comes from the word matzah, a type of bread. Dough and bread have been used as terms for money for many years.
Wonga as a term for money has been enjoying a revival recently. It originates from the Romany gypsy word for coal – “wangar”. “Wonga” was first popularised in the late 19th century and revived in the 1980s along with wedge, wad and wodge. The popularity of the later has since faded while we see the rise of wonga once again.