March 30, 2014

Don't knock it till you try it

This column might overdose you on trivia, but it’s guaranteed to make you think a bit.

Bit. That’s the magic woid (word), as Groucho use to say, on his “You Bet Your Life” TV show in the ‘50s. If a contestant said the word that had secretly been revealed to the audience beforehand, a toy duck would come down on a wire. It had a mustache, glasses and cigar — just like Groucho. It also had a hundred-dollar bill in its mouth for the contestant. That was more than a little bit of cash in those days.

How many of you have used the word bit as it applies to money? It was common when I was growing up. I mowed lawns for 6 bits an hour. Two bits would buy a huge bag of penny candy. Two bits would also get you into a Saturday matinee at the Orvis Theater in Massena with enough left for a bag of popcorn.

Where does that word come from? I was reminded of the origin when I saw a photo posted on a social network by a friend who digs up arrowheads and old coins. In colonial times, the Spanish dollar was used for currency in our country. Treasure hunters call them “pieces of eight.” If you were a pirate, you’d know that.

The piece of eight was worth 8 “reales.” One silver reale was a “bit.” So, a bit would be 12 ½ cents in our money on the decimal scale with 100 cents for a modern dollar.

I know it’s confusing, but if I dug up a silver reale (real?) or a piece of eight, I’d be thrilled. I guess I should follow amateur historian, re-enactor and collector Tom Pray around to see where he’s putting his shovel in the dirt.

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