For What It’s Worth: Dollars to Doughnuts
By Joel Dresang
To stay practical, language keeps adapting. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (and Disney’s Pocahontas) said of rivers, language is always moving. It’s different every time you step into it.
That’s why idioms often stand out. Common expressions can be based on an outdated custom or context. What once had poignant meaning now makes no sense if you interpret it literally.
For What It’s Worth is an occasional look at the meanings and origins of words and expressions investors may encounter.
Take the saying “dollars to doughnuts.” It’s what we say when we’re really sure of ourselves. We’re so confident that we’re making a bet, and we’re betting something valuable against something that’s worth less. If I’m wrong, I’ll pay you money. If you’re wrong, just give me pastry.
An array of wordsmiths trace “dollars to doughnuts” back to the 19th century. The first recorded usage was a newspaper article in Nevada in 1876. “Dollars to doughnuts” was used matter-of-factly and without definition, suggesting it was a common saying of the day.
Betting cash against something of relatively little value wound its way into other expressions, such as “dollars to buttons” and “dollars to cobwebs.” Chances are “doughnuts” took hold because of our avid appreciation for alliteration. Other examples include “dollars to dumplings” and “dollars to dimes.”
Taken literally, “dollars to doughnuts” does not have the weight it once carried as a sign of self-assurance.
Consider that the classic Dunkin’ Donut doughnut costs 99 cents. So, literally to bet someone a dollar to a doughnut, is like saying, “I could be right, or I could be wrong. Either give me a doughnut, or I’ll give you money to buy one.” Include the sales tax, and you would be better off losing the bet because the doughnut is worth more than the dollar.
The word dollar has been used for a number of currencies over the years and comes from a Dutch and German word referring to a 16th century coin, the Joachimsthaler, from a mining village in what is now the Czech Republic.
Of course, dough is also slang for money. Like the bread from which it is made, dough is a common substance traditionally needed for daily living.
At first, doughnuts were clumps of cake batter fried in oil – more resembling modern doughnut holes than the popular ring shape that now defines them. Similarly, even though the literal impact of betting dollars to doughnuts has lost its value over time, we still get the meaning. And it’s fun to say.
Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.
(initially posted Aug. 24, 2016)