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!


February 3, 2010

On Words: Pose

Although most of my posts have focused on publishers and ebooks, this is an editor’s blog and one of the things editors do is deal with words. Consequently, I am introducing a new topic, called On Words, to the mix. On Words will address words and phrases that catch my editorial eye and discuss their etymology. Hopefully this will broaden my understanding of words and phrases used in English. Today’s post about pose inaugurates On Words.

Reading the newspaper has become a bit depressing. I get tired of the strident right and left wings of the Republican and Democrat parties posing for their radicalized followers and hearing nothing from the centrists. The recent demand for a Republican litmus test reinforces my continuing disdain for the extremists of both parties. I believe that most Americans are centrists and simply want what is best for America as a whole, not what is best for the far right or the far left.

Then came the Mitch McConnell smiles about having thwarted Barack Obama’s vision for America by holding the Republican party together in a chorus of no and now adding Scott Brown as  filibusterer number 41.

That led me to think: Are these politicians — Republican and Democrat alike — who should be looking out for the welfare of all America, really just posing when they say they are focused on what is best for America as opposed to what is best for their reelection. Are they just posers?

Pose is is derived from the French poser, to deposit, and from the Late Latin pausare, to rest, and the Latin pausa, to pause. In American usage, it originally meant the distance the cargo of a canoe was carried before the cargo was deposited for a rest. As was explained in The Spirit of the Times (January 30, 1858), “In crossing a long portage, they do not go through the whole distance with one load, but divide it into ‘poses,’ or rests; and carry in succession each load to the first ‘pose,’ and then carry them to the second one, and so on, so that they can rest in walking back for the loads.” In 1941, the McDermott Glossary stated that the average distance of a pose was one-third mile. (Perhaps we should infer that politicians are a burden to be dropped every so often :).)

But somewhere along the path of linguistic history, pose took on other meanings and usages. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) gives the word its modern definition: “To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.” But of most interest is the third definition: “To represent oneself falsely; pretend to be other than what one is.” Similarly, a poser is defined as “one who poses.”

Because pose and poser accurately describe politicians of all stripes in 2010, in 10 years I expect to open my dictionary and see these definitions:

  • pose (v.) 1. The campaign promises made by a person seeking political office that will be ignored once elected. 2. To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.
  • poser (n.) 1. A politician. 2. One who poses.

Still I would like to know how and when the transition was made from a portage measure to the description of a politician (i.e., one who represents him- or herself falsely). Any ideas?

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