Q: I’ve heard that the term “gold digger” originated in mining. A miner who worked in a dangerous part of the mine was paid twice the going rate but had a short life expectancy. The woman who chose to marry him was a gold digger. Is this true?
A: The term “gold digger” was originally used in a literal way to mean someone who digs for gold.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the term first cropped up in a Georgia newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, which wrote in 1830: “There are tippling shops on every hill where these gold diggers are collected.”
But the sort of “gold digger” you mean, the mercenary female kind, has only a figurative relationship with real gold mining.
And she (or rather this term for her) didn’t emerge until the early 1900s, long after the gold rushes of the 19th century.
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines this kind of “gold digger” (the term is sometimes hyphenated) as “a woman who associates with or marries a man solely for his wealth.”
The metaphor here is obvious. A woman who works at catching a rich man is like a miner digging for gold.
The word sleuth Barry Popik seems to have found the earliest known published use of the term in its figurative sense.
On his website The Big Apple, Popik reports finding a reference in Rex Beach’s novel The Ne’er-Do-Well, copyrighted in 1910 and published in 1911: “These people are money mad, aren’t they? Worst bunch of gold-diggers I ever saw.”
The Random House slang dictionary reports another early sighting, from a short-story collection, Beef, Iron and Wine, by Jack Lait (1915-16): “Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no gold digger.”
And the OED has another, from a play by Avery Hopwood called The Gold Diggers (1919):
“ ‘Jerry’ Lamar is one of a band of pretty little salamanders known to Broadway as ‘gold diggers,’ because they ‘dig’ for the gold of their gentlemen friends and spend it being good to their mothers and their pet dogs.”
It was probably this play (as well as the 1929 movie based on it, Gold Diggers of Broadway) that popularized the term.
As Popik points out, however, “gold digger” had been around several years before it made it to Broadway.
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