Go forth and befuddle.
Dear Word Detective: This weekend I toured Angel Island in San Francisco bay, the West coast version of Ellis Island. During the tour we stopped at a camp bakery at an old civil war era military site. The guide told us that part of the pay, as demanded by the troops, was a loaf of bread. She said that was the origin of the term “dough” when referring to salary or money. I am wondering if that might be why soldiers were called “doughboys” in the distant past. — Gary Prideaux.
Golly. You know, when I grow up or retire, whichever comes first, I wanna be a guide at a tourist attraction. As far as I can tell, they have an official license to simply make stuff up, the weirder the better, without ever being publicly humiliated by Oprah Winfrey. Furthermore, since most of the folks you’re talking about are long gone, you can solemnly declare, without fear of libel suits, that Abe Lincoln was secretly married to a hedgehog and Woodrow Wilson had webbed feet. Folks will smile, nod, take pictures of you, and then go home and repeat your stories to their friends.
Speaking of the distant past, I knew I had delved into “doughboy” in this column before, but that turns out to have been ten years ago, so we’ll play it again at quick marching pace. Although most of us know “doughboy” as World War I slang for an American soldier, the term actually dates back to at least 1847, before the Civil War. In her memoirs, written in 1887, the widow of General George Armstrong Custer mentions that the small boiled dumplings served to sailors aboard early 19th century ships were known as “doughboys,” and that the term became slang for soldiers because the large brass buttons on their uniforms resembled the dumpling “doughboys.”
There are, not surprisingly, many other stories about the origins of “doughboy” (and probably new ones being invented every day by tour guides), but I tend to go with Mrs. Custer’s explanation because we know for a fact that such dumplings had been known as “doughboys” since about 1685.
“Dough” as slang for “money” is an American coinage dating back to the mid-19th century (“He thinks he will pick his way out of the Society’s embarrassments, provided he can get sufficient dough,” 1851). “Dough” in this sense appears to be based on “bread,” also intermittently popular slang for money since the 1930s. Those of you paying attention may be wondering how “dough” can be drawn from “bread” when “bread” showed up roughly 80 years after “dough,” but there is a logical explanation. The use of “bread” to mean “sustenance” in a more general non-money sense dates back to the early 1700s (“Poor miserable Fishers, who get their Bread out of the Water, to keep them from starving,” 1727), and “breadwinner” dates to 1818. So “bread” as slang for money has a long pedigree, and the playful substitution of “dough” for bread makes perfect sense. As a matter of fact, there may even be an old pun lurking in there, since the ancient Germanic root sense of “dough” is “something that is kneaded,” and, as we all know, money is definitely “something that is needed.”