How did bread, cheese, and dough come to mean money?
Back in the day, the hip-hop duo OutKast released a song called “Aquemini” that goes:
Street scholars that’s majoring in culinary arts, you know,
how to work the bread, cheese, and dough from scratch
This is a little André wordplay, talking about hustlers out to earn their pay. When I heard this and clocked the bread, cheese, and dough bit, I wondered – how did all these food words come to mean money?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a good place to start. Within the entry for bread, you’ll find a slang sense for money, grouped with the sense defined ‘Livelihood, means of subsistence’. This suggests an evolution from one to the other. The ‘livelihood’ sense comes into English in the early 18th century, and a few centuries later, bread takes on the connotation of money in the 1930s. Bread → subsistence → money.
I love the dough
Since they’re related concepts, I expected to find a similar story for dough, but such was not to be. Unlike the tidy progression in the entry for bread, at dough there’s no intermediary sense to do with ‘subsistence’ or ‘livelihood’, which makes that connect-the-dots approach to derivation a little less convincing. It’s interesting to see, though, that quotations illustrating the money sense date back into the mid-1800s, which shows that people were using dough in this way nearly 100 years before the synonymous bread.
Searching for a little more information on dough‘s trajectory, I turn to Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang, where it seems Mr Green has anticipated my conundrum. In his entry for dough I find this annotation: “the idea of bread as an essential constituent of life”. Perhaps dough was bread‘s forbear. Who would’ve thought.
Cheese is another tricky one, but for different reasons. Between the OED’s two separate entries for the noun (homographs), I couldn’t find any sense defined “money”. There was one potential candidate at the second homograph, defined ‘Wealth and fame… Also, an important or self-important person’, but all of its supporting evidence concerned people, the sort you’d call the big cheese. The editors are currently revising cheese, so it’s possible that an addition could be on the horizon.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang doesn’t offer any more assistance. Although it does include this particular sense, the etymological information is uncertain: “? Play on Bread… or ? The yellow colour”. Green’s suggestion about possible patterning after the bread usage is compelling, but he gives examples of cheese as old as 1850, which you’ll recall is much, much earlier than bread. Dough would’ve been its contemporary, but even that feels like I’m grasping at straws.
There’s also a theory kicking around that this cheese derives from government cheese, an erstwhile U.S. welfare benefit afforded to food stamp recipients during the latter half of the 20th century. By the 1980s, the compound ‘government cheese’ had come to mean any state handout, money included, and as such, might have been abbreviated to cheese. As tempting (and tidy) as this sounds, cheese significantly predates government cheese, so I’m not convinced.
Ultimately, I don’t know how cheese came to mean money. Despite the lack of evidence, I hesitate to dismiss the idea that all of these food usages are somehow connected, especially considering the constant and prolific evolution of this terminology in hip-hop lyrics, where cheese seems to have spawned an incredible number of spin-offs in the last twenty or so years. The most common of these is undoubtedly cheddar:
Touch my cheddar, feel my Beretta
(the Notorious B.I.G., “Warning”)
But I’ve also heard rappers referring to their feta, as in:
We talk about money, cash, feta
(Odd Future, “Money Talk”)
Even gouda‘s gotten some run:
If it ain’t about no gouda, partner, you can vanish
(E-40, in Snoop Dogg’s “Candy (Drippin’ like Water)”)
I wouldn’t be surprised to come across ricotta, parmesan, maybe even camembert (especially considering the semi-related cream of Wu-Tang fame). Who knows, ten years from now, you may be stacking up your brie!