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Rhino

Q From Chuck O’Brien: I searched your site (perhaps not thoroughly enough?) looking for the word rhino, meaning money, which you mentioned in your piece some time ago about pony up. It also appears in the short story by Washington Irving entitled The Devil and Tom Walker. Where does this come from?

A Rhino is one of the more ancient, curious and perplexing slang terms for money in the English language. It originated in Britain and was taken to other English-speaking countries by emigrants. It has had a long life — though it begins to appear in the written record in the 1620s, it continued to pop up well into the twentieth century. Its heyday was the nineteenth:

“But there’s one thing needful — and that is the needful.” “Money?” suggested Alaric. “Yes, money — cash — rhino — tin — ready — or by what other name the goddess would be pleased to have herself worshipped; money, sir; there’s the difficulty, now as ever.”

The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope, 1857.

The obvious assumption is that it’s the same word as the abbreviated form of rhinoceros, whose name is from Greek words that literally mean nose-horn (Greek rhinos, nose). Much speculation has been built upon this supposed connection, some of it attempting to link rhino with paying through the nose, another seventeenth-century idiom that has acquired fanciful etymologies of its own. It has been argued that monetary rhino came about as a reference to the high value of rhinoceros horn, a supposed aphrodisiac.

The big problem with such attempts is dating. At the time the slang term was first recorded, only two rhinoceroses had been brought to Europe, in 1515 and 1577, both gifts to Portuguese royalty through Portugal’s maritime contacts with India and the East Indies. The first to be seen in England arrived only in October 1684, by which time rhino had long been established in its monetary sense. (This rhinoceros had been imported from India by a ship’s captain named Henry Udall, who unsuccessfully hoped to sell it at a good profit, though after the failure of an auction it ended up being exhibited at the Bell Savage Inn on Ludgate Hill in London.) When another rhinoceros came to England in 1739, it was still exotic enough to be described in the London Daily Advertiser as a “strange and wonderful creature”. It would be surprising for an animal so little known in Britain to have generated a slangy abbreviation. Jonathon Green, the slang lexicographer, has remarked that the efforts to forge a link show “a certain lexicographical desperation”.

We have to presume that the true origin lies elsewhere, though we haven’t the slightest idea where that might be. However, it may be that the arrival of the first rhinoceros in England created a link between it and the existing slang term. A little while after its arrival this appeared:

My lusty rustic, learn and be instructed. Cole is in the language of the witty, money. The ready, the rhino; thou shalt be rhinocerical, my lad, thou shalt.

The Squire of Alsatia, by Thomas Shadwell, 1688. Cole is now spelled coal, a valuable mineral.

This hinted at a link with the animal through rhinocerical, which Shadwell invented and which became a fanciful adjective in the next century for being rich. Might he have had in mind the animal that was languishing in the courtyard of a London pub and generated a pun on its name and the existing rhino? If so, it’s his fault that later generations of word sleuths got the wrong end of the stick.

Incidentally, Thomas Shadwell’s text shows that ready (later the readies) was already in use. It’s short for ready money, cash or funds immediately available for use, which dates from the 1420s. The composite ready rhino appeared in 1697. Like rhino, it continued in use for a couple of centuries and it was punned upon in the first known use of rhino for the animal, thus turning the term full circle:

The Black Rhinoceros of Equatorial Africa ... The promptness with which it makes its tremendous charges has earned for it, among European hunters, the soubriquet of the “Ready Rhino”.

Punchinello, 9 Jul. 1870.

Page created 28 Sep. 2013

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Last modified: 28 September 2013.