Wooden nickel

Posted by ESC on June 17, 2001

In Reply to: Wooden nickel posted by James Briggs on June 16, 2001

: : : What does the phrase "don't take any wooden nickels" come from?

: : : Thanks for your help.

: : The Dict. of Amer. Slang calls it "a c1920 fad phrase," but it lasted later than that, at least into the 1950s, and probably started earlier. It means "Take care of yourself"; literally, don't accept counterfeit money. A real nickel is worth 5 cents; a wooden nickel is worth nothing.

: On this side of the Atlantic we have a somewhat different phrase - 'it's not worth a rap' said to imply that something is of such low value as to be almost worthless. The Rap in this expression was used in Ireland in the 1720s. Small change was in very short supply and the vacuum was filled by counterfeit copper halfpenny pieces. These counterfeits were known as raps. They soon fell to something like a quarter of their supposed value.

DON'T TAKE ANY WOODEN NICKELS - "First recorded in about 1915, this expression was originally a warning from friends and relatives to rubes leaving the sticks in the great migration from rural areas to the big cities at the turn of the century. It was a humorous adjuration meaning beware of those city slickers, for no real wooden nickels were ever counterfeited - they would have cost more to make than they'd have been worth. Ironically, country boys were the ones who possibly did succeed in passing off wooden objects as the real thing. Yankee peddlers as early as 1825 allegedly sold wooden nutmegs, which cost manufacturers a quarter of a cent apiece mixed in with lots of real nutmegs worth four cents each." From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

A second source says, the expression means: "Don't let yourself be cheated or ripped off. Originated in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Money that has no real value is sometimes called 'wooden'.Probably stories about wooden nutmegs, wooden hams, and wooden pumpkin seeds contributed to the later use of the phrase 'wooden nickels' in American or even to the use of 'wooden rubles' in Russia." From Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

Another source adds: "The United States minted five-cent pieces from the earliest days of the Union, but they were not known as nickels until 1866, because in that year the first five-cent coins containing nickel were minted. The practice of making commemorative tokens out of wood as centennial souvenirs developed and we assume that wooden nickels actually were made during the nineteenth century for this purpose. Frequently such coins are accepted as legal tender while the celebration is in progress, but of course they cease to have value when the show is over. So the expression 'Don't take any wooden nickels' became the popular equivalent of 'Don't be a sucker.'." From Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).