An American Editor

March 19, 2010

On Words: Almighty Dollar

How many times have we heard or read the phrase “the almighty dollar”? We know what it means, the dollar is the object of universal devotion on the part of Americans. But where did the phrase come from?

It appears that Washington Irving is the coiner of this particular phrase, although it could be argued that Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare and himself an English dramatist, is the coiner because he had used “almighty gold” in 1616 in his Epistle to Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland (“The flattering, mighty, nay, almighty gold”).

Washington Irving coined the phrase in the November 12, 1836, issue of Knickerbocker magazine, writing in his story “The Creole Village”: “In a word, the almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land, seems to have no genuine devotees in these peculiar villages.” Irving, a year later, in the midst of the financial panic engulfing America, wrote the dollar is “daily becoming more and more an object of worship.”

The almighty dollar found itself part of the social commentary in “The Wants of Social and Domestic Life” (Genesee Farmer, November 1852), where it was written, “In the eagerness of our pursuit of the almighty dollar, how prone we are to forget the wants, and neglect the duties of domestic life.” In the  story “The Garden” (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, February 1853), we find: “Their pursuit of the all-mighty dollar is too passionate and intense to admit of interruption from the recreations of horticulture.” In 1857, the Sacramento Phoenix wrote, “In dreams they nod, and mutter ‘God,’ but mean the Almighty dollar.”

Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the related phrase “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” which he used in his 1871 novel The Coming Race.

The almighty dollar also has been alluded to in a variety of ways, for example: In 1855, the Monterey Sentinel wrote, “To-day is ‘steamer day’ every body is astir — the immortal dollar is jingling.” Beadle’s Missourian (1866) wrote: Even the Indian…is moved by the almighty dollar, or, rather, by the almighty half-dollar, for that is the only denomination of specie in which he will receive payment.” The Las Vegas (NM) Gazette (1884) commented: The “street car driver made [him] walk up to the front of the car like a little man and deposit the almighty nickel in the box.”

Newsweek (January 5, 1948) noted, “Something had happened to his standard of value — the almighty dollar — which deeply disturbed him.” And Time (June 16, 1947), said “There is a limit to the sacrifices some Britons would make for the sake of the almighty greenback.”

Today, as our politicians pursue reelection contributions, we can thank Washington Irving for identifying the nearly 200-year-old worship of the almighty dollar. And for those who need more spiritual sustenance, perhaps The Church of the Almighty Dollar is looking the place for you!

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