Q: What is the origin of the phrase “ten-dollar word”? I looked for an answer in your archives and on the Internet, but I didn’t find one.
A: You’re right. We haven’t written about the usage until now and we don’t see much about it online that’s definitive. So thanks for getting us on the case. Here’s what we’ve found.
The linguist Dwight L. Bolinger has written that the word “dollar” is used in many expressions to suggest something important or pretentious. The phrase “ten-dollar word,” for example, refers to a big and pretentious word.
In the October 1942 issue of the journal American Speech, Bolinger says “dollar” is common “as the second element (preceded by a numeral) in combinations ref. to important or pretentious words.”
Writing in the journal’s Among the New Words column, he notes that “cent” and “bit” are used as the second element in similar phrases. And by extension, he says, the “dollar” usage is applied to important things as well as pretentious words.
Bolinger, gives these examples of the usage in action: “two-, four-, five-, ten-; fifteen-dollar, seventy-five-cent, two-bit word; sixty-four-dollar question, problem; five-dollar question.”
So a pretentious word, according to him, can be referred to as a “fifteen-dollar word,” a “seventy-five-cent word,” a “two-bit word,” and so on. And an important problem can be called a “sixty-four-dollar problem.”
Bolinger was writing back in 1942, but we’d argue against the use of “two-bit” today to describe a pretentious word. The term “two-bit” now means cheap, petty, or insignificant. (A bit used to be an eighth of a dollar, so two bits was 25 cents.)
The column includes several citations from the early 1940s for the use of “dollar” to mean pompous, but we’ve found many earlier ones now digitized in Google News and Google Books.
Here’s an example of “ten-dollar word,” the specific phrase you’ve asked about, from the Aug. 31, 1937, issue of the Reading (Penn.) Eagle:
“Some of the best paid Republican propagandists call it ‘totalitarianism,’ a ten-dollar word which is dear to those who argue against responsibility in government.”
And here’s an even earlier example from a 1930 issue of the journal Printers’ Ink: “A public speaker the other day spoke of the word ‘psychology,’ which he said was a ten-dollar word until recent years.”
And here’s a much earlier citation for a pre-inflationary “half-dollar word” from the Jan. 2, 1890, issue of the American Machinist:
“There has been far too much highfalutin by men who, to cover their own ignorance, have used long half-dollar words to express what no fellow could understand.”
As far as we can tell, the usage originated in the US in the late 19th century. Why “ten-dollar word,” rather than “ten-carat word” or “ten-pound word”? Sorry, but we don’t have an answer. For now, as Elvis sang, let’s say, “Just because.”
We’ll end with an inflated example from The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White: “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
We don’t agree with everything in Strunk and White, but we’ll second that opinion.
Check out our books about the English language