Q: I was reading Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 when I ran across this comment by Doc Daneeka, the squadron physician: “I don’t want to make sacrifices. I want to make dough.” When did “dough” become a slang term for money?
A: When the word “dough” showed up in Old English more than a thousand years ago (originally spelled dag or dah), it referred to the floury concoction you knead to make bread.
The word’s slang sense of money originated in the US in the mid-1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED’s earliest example is from the February 1851 issue of the Yale Tomahawk, the magazine of the fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi: “He thinks he will pick his way out of the Society’s embarrassments, provided he can get sufficient dough.”
The slang usage was later picked up in British English. Oxford’s most recent example is from the Aug. 3, 1955, issue of the Times in London: “I’m going back to business and make myself a little dough.”
How did “dough” become monetized? Our guess is that the slang sense of “dough” reflects the earlier use of “bread” for livelihood or means of subsistence.
The word “bread” was rare in Old English, and apparently meant a bit or piece of food, according to the OED. (The Old English word for what we think of as bread was hlaf, the ancestor of our word “loaf.”)
But by the mid-900s, the dictionary adds, “bread” came to mean the “well-known article of food prepared by moistening, kneading, and baking meal or flour, generally with the addition of yeast or leaven.”
In the early 1700s, “bread” took on a new sense—livelihood or subsistence. The first Oxford citation is from Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel: “I was under no Necessity of seeking my Bread.”
Although “bread” meant livelihood or subsistence in the 18th century, it didn’t come to mean money per se until the 20th century.
Here’s an example of this slang sense from Jazzmen, a 1939 book edited by Frederick Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith: “Inside the low, smoky room, the musicians sweated for their bread.”
Finally, here’s an OED citation from the June 15, 1952, issue of DownBeat magazine: ”If I had bread (Dizzy’s basic synonym for loot) I’d certainly start a big band again.”