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Not three chips

Reading a curious new book, The Rich: A New Study of the Species, by William Davis, I was struck anew by a quite ordinary use of words. This is the way people refer to the quantity of wealth a person has amassed or inherited by saying that he or she “is worth” such-and-such an amount. This is not at all a recent invention, being recorded by the OED already in 1460. But it has always seemed weird to me. Imaginary dialogue:

Arthur: I’m worth three million pounds, you know.
Vernon: Really? I suppose I might pay a couple of quid for you, but not that much.

Mozart did not have much money when he died, but it is surely arguable that he was “worth” at least as much as a contemporary hedge-fund manager. I suppose the problem is that the word “worth” has always been able to choose between two contrasting senses: either 1) specific material price, or 2) value – a notion of “true” or ideal value as opposed to specific material price. Cunning things, words. The OED provides a nice list, meanwhile, of the word “worth” used in what it terms “contemptuous comparison”:

noght worth a gloue
noght wurth a flye
not woorth a blewe point
not woorth two strawes
not worth three chippes

Particularly forceful is one by a certain Foote, apparently a splenetic hater of artisanal ingenuity, in 1776: “Manufacturers, and meagre mechanicks? fellows not worth powder and shot.”

What are you worth, readers?

  1. 1  dsquared  November 29, 2006, 12:38 pm 

    I had always assumed it meant “worth, to a maximally efficient kidnapper”, and that this was the reason why the magazines always restricted themselves to readily available assets that could be converted into cash, rather than anything Mozart might have. The Forbes Global Rich List makes a lot more sense when you realise how many copies they are aiming to sell in Colombia.

  2. 2  Steven  November 29, 2006, 2:56 pm 

    Wouldn’t a sensible kidnapper avoid asking for the whole amount listed, in case that posed too much of a dilemma to the person receiving the ransom demand? I suppose if a kidnapper saw his target was “worth” $300 million, say, then he might think that the family would pay $30 million. But I have little experience in kidnapping.

  3. 3  Chris Ellis  November 29, 2006, 4:54 pm 

    i) Somewhere in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ the runaway slave Jim considers the idea that he’s rich because of the price on his head — what he’s ‘worth’.

    ii) I believe that the expression ‘good for -‘ was at one time a way of recording how much it was safe to lend someone. Naturally this would produce phrases like ‘good for nothing’.

    iii) The word ‘substance’ as in ‘man of substance’ is interesting here too.

  4. 4  Chris Ellis  November 29, 2006, 5:12 pm 

    “Huckleberry Finn” chapter 8: “Yes; en I’s rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn’ want no mo’.”

  5. 5  robinhio  November 29, 2006, 5:30 pm 

    So when the housing market falls off a cliff & I’m in negative equity I’ll only be worth something to my bank.
    Oh good.

  6. 6  Steven  November 30, 2006, 9:49 am 

    Chris – nice spot on Huck Finn.

    It would be nice to think that a “man of substance” originally meant a fat man, and therefore rich, as obesity indicated back in the day, but I don’t know if that’s true.

  7. 7  Tom the Peeper  December 1, 2006, 3:43 pm 

    Last time I conducted a kidnapping it was actually a hedge fund manager. The family ended up paying eventually, but only after I promised not to give him back.

  8. 8  Steven  December 1, 2006, 5:03 pm 


  9. 9  Richard  December 4, 2006, 4:19 pm 

    Given the famous case of the ransoming of Richard I, I’m surprised it took until 1460 for this usage to appear.

    The Timawa (“Philipino vikings,” if you like) measured their worth in exactly this way, being very offended if their captors didn’t demand high enough ransoms, according to W. H. Scott.

    For much, much more on value, I point you to David Graeber: Toward an anthropological theory of value, the false coin of our own dreams (Palgrave, 2001) – really! It’s much better than it sounds from the title.

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