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My Great Simoleon Caper

08/05/2012

I was surprised by yesterday’s bemused emails (frankly, I was surprised that anyone in the UK looked in, given that it was a Bank Holiday) about my use of the word simoleons. I thought everyone knew it: slang for money, geld, wampum, rhino, long green, shekels, wherewithal, wedge, boodle, dosh and dough – more specifically the US dollar. Perhaps I spent too long as a child reading Damon Runyon short stories. Since it was raining, I started to research it.

In the early eighteenth-century, the old silver sixpence was often called a simon. The derivation is said to be from Thomas Simon, the engraver at the Royal Mint who designed the new coinage after the Restoration in 1660. By extension, it was a verse in the New Testament (Acts 10:6 – “He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side”) that led to the coin being called a tanner. Simon seems to have been taken to the USA and transferred to the dollar coin. Someone then elided it with the far more valuable French gold Napoleon which was in wide circulation, and coined (ha!) the word simoleon.

The first usage listed in the OED is in 1896, although in Iowa’s Davenport Daily Gazette (26 June 1883 in the middle of page 12; I’m sure you’ve kept your copy) there’s a piece of extended whimsy about the town’s journalists losing their press club, above Thede’s shoe store, to a dentist who had offered their landlord more rent: “The doctor spoke unto Mr. Thede, and did offer to him many fat simoleons and talents of gold and shekels of goodly silver, and Mr. Thede hearkened unto his voice, and the tones thereof were too canny for him.”

The prolific and under-rated Neal Stephenson wrote a short story for a TIME special issue in 1995 (five years before PayPal) called The Great Simoleon Caper, in which Simoleons are a form of non-governmental electronic currency. That use could have been what prompted Maxis and Electronic Arts to choose the name for the currency in their series of computer games featuring the Sims.

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