Stupid Question ™
Sept. 9, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of “grand” referring to a thousand dollars? Does it apply only to money?
—Beau Arnason and Chris Speciale
A: Obviously, it dates to so long ago that $1,000 was worth enough to be considered grand.
The word “grand” goes all the way back to Latin grandis, where it was a term for “full-grown” or “big.” In late vulgar Latin, it even superseded the fancier word magnus in popularity. It entered English through French around 1400, in the form of official titles (e.g., John the Grand).
It became a very popular word with a variety of meanings, evolving an especially wide range of slang uses around the turn of the last century—when “grand” meaning “$1,000” was born.
For our purposes, there are two key times in the evolution of “grand.” One was around 1575, when it came to mean a comprehensive unity of items—a meaning that survives today in the generic phrases “grand total” or “grand sum.” The second was around 1800, when it was used as a general positive exclamation.
“Grand sum” is a common phrase suggestive of money. The “grand” part of the phrase means “comprehensive unity” (the “sum” part is actually redundant). But misreading it with the more common meaning of “very fine” would lead to using the phrase to mean a very fine sum of money. Since $1,000 could be considered a fine sum, that’s probably why it’s referred to as a “grand” (a catchy shortening of the phrase “grand sum”).
This use of “grand” was originally US criminal slang. The first written reference to it dates from 1915, but it was almost certainly in use by 1900. The famed slang expert Eric Partridge reported that an old-timer assured him that “grand” was common racetrack slang in the 1880s.
Originally, if describing more than one set of $1,000, “grand” was often pluralized: $25,000 would be “twenty-five grands.”
By around 1920, “grand” was singular in all uses: $25,000 would be “twenty-five grand.” It was also common, especially among Chicago gangsters, to shorten the word to “gran.” (Later, it was sometimes abbreviated further to “Gs.”)
“Grand” entered general American slang in the 1930s and has stayed current ever since. In both the original criminal slang and in common English, it always refers to money.
In the 1940s, there appear to have been some stabs at using “grand” to mean a thousand of anything, but this never caught on. (If you need an oil change, it won’t help to tell the mechanic you’ve driven three grand since your last one.)
However, some specialized jargons do use “grand” to refer to other items. In aviation slang, a “grand” is a thousand feet of altitude. And in trucker lingo, a “grand” is a thousand pounds.