Sawbuck

What Is a Sawbuck?

Sawbuck is a slang term with a couple of different money-related meanings. Historically, it has referred to a U.S. $10 bill, reportedly because two ornate Roman numeral Xs (resembling sawbucks) were present on the backside of the 10-dollar bill issued during the Civil War. Currently, the term is commonly used by interbank forex dealers to signify a transaction in the amount of $10 million U.S. dollars (USD).

Key Takeaways

  • Sawbuck is an old-fashioned slang term for a $10 bill.
  • The phrase reportedly reflects the fact that the Roman numeral X, which resembles a wooden sawbuck, was traditionally used on U.S. $10 banknotes to denote the number 10.
  • The X disappeared from the reverse of the 10-dollar note by 1880, but the nickname stuck until fairly recently.
  • Sawbuck is also a forex term for trades in the amount of USD $10 million.
  • Conjecture has it that use of the term buck to indicate American dollars comes from colonial trading days, when the monetary exchange for goods had its basis in a buckskin.


Understanding Sawbucks

Sawbuck is a term for a type of carpentry tool, also known as a sawhorse: a wooden rack with "X"-shaped crosses at each end, which is used for holding and cutting timber. The first paper money in the U.S. chose to use Roman numerals on bills and banknotes, which meant that X represented the number 10. Early $10 bills, issued in the mid-19th century, bore two prominent scripted Roman numeral 10s that somewhat resemble a sawbuck's X-shaped ends. That, reportedly, inspired $10 bills to be nicknamed "sawbucks." Given that "bucks" was already common slang for "dollars" at the time, it was something of a double play on words.

1850

Date of the earliest known use of sawbuck in print referring to a $10 bill

In forex markets, interbank transactions in the amount of $10 million notional are referred to as sawbucks. If a transaction involves three sawbucks, it would imply a value of $30 million.

Since 1985 or so, "sawbuck" has also referred to a 10-dollar "bag" (actual bag or any kind of package) of street drugs—originally, marijuana, but now heroin, crack, or any other controlled substance. This slang apparently originated in Chicago.

History of the Sawbuck

The use of the slang term sawbuck to mean 10 dollars has declined over the years. Partially, this may be due to the less frequent use of Roman numerals both on currencies and in everyday life—not to mention an increasingly urban population's familiarity with physical sawbucks.

During the 1800s, sawbucks were tools that saw frequent use in many American households. Cast iron cookstoves anchored most kitchen spaces and served, in many cases, as both a way to cook food and as a source of heat. These stoves could use either coal or wood. The use of wood was more prevalent in rural areas, and coal saw use in urban settings. Most people had the X-shaped sawbuck in the backyard to cut logs into the size needed to burn in these stoves. Unlike a sawhorse, which raises and supports wood for sawing, a sawbuck secures the wood in a cradle, mitigating slipping and kickback when cutting, and allowing easy use by children, as well as adult women and men.

Bucks as Dollars

Conjecture has it that use of the term buck to indicate money comes from colonial trading days, when the monetary exchange for goods had its basis in a buckskin or deer hide. The earliest written reference is a 1748 journal entry by Pennsylvania pioneer Conrad Weiser. Weiser used the term frequently, with the first being on page 41 of the journal when he wrote that "a cask of whiskey shall be sold to you for five bucks." Another early citing, according to Oxford English Dictionary, is an 1856 entry in the Democratic State Journal listing the fine assessed for assault and battery as 20 bucks.

Sawbucks and the $10 Bill

Prior to the formation of the Federal Reserve, the entity tasked with issuing fiat currency was the U.S. Treasury. U.S. dollar coins began circulation sometime shortly after 1792, with paper currency introduced in 1861. The first 10-dollar banknote, issued in 1861, featured a small portrait of Abraham Lincoln and the Roman numeral X on the reverse. These bills were demand notes, or the equivalent of a Treasury note (T-Note) today.

Many believe this banknote with the Roman X is the origin of the use of the term sawbuck for the 10-dollar bill. However, the X disappeared from the reverse of the 10-dollar note by 1880 in favor of various designs, including the number 10, elaborate designs, as well as images of gold coins, Columbia, and the word "silver" on the silver certificate notes.

Created in 1862, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing develops and produces all U.S. paper currency today.

Sawbuck Portraits

Today, the $10 bill features a portrait of Alexander Hamilton, but he did not arrive on its face until the 1929 series of banknotes. Earlier portraits include:

  • 1863: Salmon P. Chase, the sixth chief justice of the U.S.
  • 1869: Daniel Webster on the left-hand side and Pocahontas' presentation to the English Royal Court on the right
  • 1870: Benjamin Franklin, flying his kite
  • 1878: Robert Morris—founding father, merchant, and signer of the Declaration of Independence
  • 1886: Thomas A. Hendricks, 21st vice president of the U.S.
  • 1890: Philip Sheridan, Union general during the Civil War
  • 1901: Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, explorers of the Louisiana Purchase territory
  • 1907: Michael Hillegas, first treasurer of the U.S.
  • 1914: Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the U.S., currently adorning the $20 note

How Much Is a Sawbuck Worth?

A sawbuck is worth $10 (USD).

Why Is a $10 Bill Called a Sawbuck?

A sawbuck or sawhorse resembles "X," which is also the Roman numeral for "10." The first $10 bills issued by the U.S. government in the 1860s prominently featured the Roman numeral 10; the huge Xs looked like sawbucks' side. So "sawbuck" became a way to refer to a 10-dollar bill.

What Is a Double Sawbuck?

A double sawbuck is 20 dollars, or a $20 bill.

What Is Slang for a $50 Bill?

"Grant" is one nickname for a $50 bill, which is adorned by the face of Ulysses S. Grant. "Half-yard" is another.

What Is Slang for a $100 Bill?

"C note" is a term used to refer to a $100 ("C" is the Roman numeral for "hundred").  $100 bills are also called "Benjamins" (or "Bennies" or "Benjis") or "Franklins," in reference to Benjamin Franklin's portrait being on them.

The Bottom Line

Colloquial phrases come and go. Calling a $10 bill a sawbuck is a bit archaic in everyday parlance now. But the nickname lives on in certain contexts: in street slang, to mean $10 worth of drugs; in the foreign exchange markets, to mean $10 million transactions.

Article Sources

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  1. Merriam-Webster. "Sawbuck." Accessed Aug. 17, 2021.

  2. Urban Dictionary. "Sawbuck." Accessed Aug. 17, 2021.

  3. Internet Archive. "Conrad Weiser's journal of a tour to the Ohio, August 11-October 2, 1748," Page 41. Accessed Aug. 17, 2021.