Blue=one person has heard the phrase “cash money.”
Red=one person has not heard the phrase “cash money.”
I first heard the phrase cash money after I moved to Reno, Nevada, and I thought it might be a casino thing because I always heard it during drawings when I would go to a certain casino for lunch. The announcer had a lot of time to fill, so he’d go on and on saying things like “Who wants to win the cash money?” and “We’re giving away cash money every three minutes,” and so on. It sounded odd to me because what other kind of cash is there? It seems redundant. But then, last week, I heard it on the Planet Money podcast, so I knew there must be a bigger story.
My first thought was that it might be regional, so I posted a question on the Grammar Girl Facebook page asking people to tell me if they hear the phrase “cash money,” and if they do, to tell me where they live. This is, of course, a nonscientific survey, but it suggests that whether you use cash money is related to your culture, your region, and your age.
Cash Money Was Popular During the Depression
The most interesting thing was watching people interact in the Facebook comments because some of the first people to comment were certain it comes from rap music or hip hop culture, and then a bunch of older people quickly started correcting them. One commenter said, “My 60 year old boss says it, so I don’t think it stemmed from hip-hop,” and one person from Nevada said she’d never heard it but her mom had heard it—and they’ve both lived in the same town in Nevada all their lives.
If you do a Google Ngram search, which shows how often phrases appear in published books and charts them by year, you see that the phrase cash money peaks in American English in the early 1940s. Clicking through on the examples and doing a regular Google search suggests that the peak is related to the Depression and how people didn’t have cash and would barter for what they needed. I found lots of references to the scarcity of “cash money” during the Depression. Here’s one example from the book Swish Nicholson: a Biography of Wartime Baseball’s Leading Slugger:
When hard times came in the 1930s, prices for crops went through the floor . . . but there was always plenty to eat on Fancy Farm, even if cash money was tight.
Cash Money Is Popular in the South
The phrase cash money seems to be least popular in the West.
There also appears to be a regional element, even though the phrase isn’t mentioned in the Dictionary of American Regional English. I made a map of people’s responses from my Facebook page. From that map (above) you can see that more people in the South, East, and Midwest say or have heard the phrase cash money, but also that fewer people in the South report being unfamiliar with the term. In other areas, it’s more of a mixed bag with some people knowing the phrase and other people not knowing it. The phrase seems to be least common in the West. Also, what you can’t see immediately on the map is how often people from the South and Midwest said something like “Oh, yeah, we say that all the time,” and people in other regions said “I think I’ve heard it once or twice,” or “I’ve heard it, but the people I know don’t say it.” (It turns out the guy in the casino I heard saying “cash money” has roots in the South.)
The comments also indicate that it may be common in North and South Dakota. I did enter all the comments on the map, so if you follow the link to the Google map and hover over each pin, you can see more details. A number of commenters also mentioned that it seemed like a phrase rural people would be more likely to use.
On that note, I also found a post by Kennith Culbreth that was specifically about dialect in the rural South in the 1930s and 1940s, and here are some of his examples:
If you were going to pay a debt in cash instead of barter, you’d say, “He paid me in “cash money.”
People were encouraged to make the “kitchen Gardens” as pledge of patriotism during times of war and to tide us through the hard times when “cash money” was hard to come by.
We didn’t have much “cash money” but always “made do.” . . . One sign I remember seeing on a store front said, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.”
Cash Money Is Popular with Rappers
If the phrase cash money was popularized in the 1930s and 1940s during the Depression and caught on and stuck most in the South, why did so many people seem to think it came from rap culture? Because there’s a huge rap record label called Cash Money Records that represents artists including Birdman, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Wayne.
Cash Money May Be Popular with People Who Use English as a Second Language
It also seems that the phrase cash money is used by some people who speak English as a second language. Again, I don’t have enough respondents to say for sure, but it seems that cash money may be used in Indonesia, Morocco, Bangladesh, and Ghana. One person seemed to have met a lot of people who use the phrase. She wrote, “When I worked in banking in the 1980s, it was a common phrase used by Asian immigrants in the Portland, Oregon area.” A few commenters from Australia and the UK said they had never heard it.
Cash Money Is Popular on Pawn Stars
Finally, a couple of people mentioned that they hear the phrase cash money on the TV show Pawn Stars, so that is probably helping popularize it again too.
Why had I never heard the phrase cash money before? I guess it’s because I’m a just-young-enough West Coast city girl who doesn’t listen to rap music or watch a lot of TV. How the phrase is distributed is an interesting peek into the way the popularity of words and phrases can rise and fall over the years and gain a foothold in disparate cultures that aren’t even aware of each other’s words and phrases. It’s nice when you can point to just one thing that influences how words are used, but when the story is more complex, that’s interesting too.
I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. Please remember to check out my card game, Peeve Wars, at FundAnything.com/peevewars. You have only a few days left.