Money Talks

Time is a piece of cake.

I can’t remember when or why, but — long before my brother became known as Rabbi Nota Schiller — he decided to teach me how to tell time. To illustrate the divisions of an hour, he took a piece of cake and broke it into four equal parts. And he said that each part was a quarter of a piece. Then he said that a quarter of an hour is 15 minutes.

I said, “I thought a quarter is 25.”

He shook his head. “I knew you were going to say that.” Then he launched into an explanation of fractions, breaking off more pieces of the cake to demonstrate each one.

“What do we have now?” he asked.

“A mess.”

Despite my brother’s best efforts, my math — and my sense of time — are still pretty crummy.

So, why am I telling you this? Following Jewish tradition, I’ll answer a question with a question: Why did I think a quarter was 25?

Very good.

But why did my mind immediately jump to a quarter of a dollar? Why was the monetary sense of the word the first thing I thought of?

By way of answer, if there’s nobody around to hear you — or if you don’t care what anybody thinks (way to go!) — say this out loud:

Dum, dum-de-dum-dum …

If you impulsively completed the phrase, “Dum dum!” we’re on the same page.

That beat, the same I use when knocking on the door (my wife and kids always recognize my knock), is universally familiar, but of uncertain origin.

The pattern is commonly known as “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”

William Safire ran into (should I say knocked on?) a brick wall searching for the origin of the phrase.

(Yiddish digression: Would that be a case of gei klapn zich kop in vant — go bang your head against the wall? Or is it more redn tzu der vant — talking to a wall? Go know!)

Safire — who tracked the phrase “shave and a haircut” for years (OK, he did other things too) — said, “Whenever I knock on a door, I beat that tattoo: dum dum-de-dum-dum, dum dum! That is how people know it is me.”

(Now where have I heard that before?)

While he was at it, Safire couldn’t resist knocking academia. After “it is me,” he wrote, “No, not ‘it is I.’ (Harvard student: ‘Who’s knocking at the door?’ ‘It is me.’ ‘You can’t be anybody I know.’)”

Then he added, “I suspect that others use the same secret signal.”

So do I.

Detective Safire was on the case: “Which came first, the rhythmic tap or the phrase? Ruth Marks, librarian at the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), [Yes, that’s a real name; it was later changed to Barbershop Harmony Society. -MS] reports that a 1933 song by Abner Silver and Eddie Maxwell was entitled ‘Shave and a Haircut,’ with the first five notes as we know them, but without the dum dum! or two bits!”

All seriousness aside, fear not; this is going somewhere. There’s light at the end of the muddle.

The expression two bits means 25¢. A “bit” means a small piece — from “bite.” It came to mean a small coin in two bits … from the U.S. South and the West Indies, in reference to silver wedges cut or stamped from Spanish dollars (Online Etymology Dictionary).

The adjective two-bit means low level, insignificant — like a two-bit politician. Later, two-bits got inflated to nickel-and-dime, meaning trivial. As a verb, nickel-and-dime means “to treat in a penny-pinching or parsimonious manner; to harass or wear down with trivialities, especially by excessive attention to small items of expenditure” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Our language is rich with references to money. We have expressions like “It’s your nickel,” from back when public phone calls cost 5¢. “Putting in his 2¢” refers to someone giving unasked-for opinions. Paying top dollar is paying a high price. Reaching one’s bottom dollar (you shouldn’t know from it) is being almost broke.

To borrow a phrase from the Watergate era: “Follow the money.”

(Why do people say “borrow” a phrase when they have no intention of returning it? Anyway, who owns “Follow the money”? It was never part of the original Watergate report from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as Ralph Keyes pointed out in The Quote Verifier.)

The almighty dollar came from an 1836 story by Washington Irving (Keyes, The Hidden History of Coined Words). Later, Irving apologized: “This phrase … has since passed into current circulation, and by some has been questioned as savoring of irreverence. The author, therefore, owes it to his orthodoxy to declare that no irreverence was intended even to the dollar itself, which he is aware is daily becoming more and more an object of worship.”

Mark Twain added, “It isn’t merely the American that adores the Almighty Dollar, it is the human race.”

I could wax philosophical about it, but — no surprise here — Shlomo Hamelech said it all:

“A feast is made for laughter and wine gladdens life, but money answers everything” (Koheles 10:19).

That’s just my 2¢. But I think it’s right on the money.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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