A recent visitor to our site was asking an interesting question about the Old West — “How much is a bit in money?” I did some digging around to try to find an answer related to the Old West. Here’s what I came up with:
According to Winfred Blevins’ valuable little reference book, “Dictionary of the American West,” a “bit” in relation to money was originally one-eighth of a Spanish or Spanish-Colonial dollar. That was probably the origin of the “two-bits, four-bits, six-bits” method of referring to money since the days of long ago.
That makes sense to me, and I should have known about the relationship between Spanish money and “bits” in U.S. slang. I took some graduate classes in Spanish Colonial and Mexican history not too many years back. I highly recommend anyone who’s interested in the Old West should take some good courses in Spanish-Mexican Colonial History. We “anglos” tend to forget that history of the West began with early Spanish settlements a century before we “whites” came to the continent.
Oh, also: Blevins’ fine book explains also that a “bit” was later a Spanish coin worth 12 and a half cents; a “short bit” was a term used for a dime; a “long bit” was 12-and-a-half cents; and a “bit house” was a saloon that sold various sizes of drinks and cigars for a certain amount of “bits,” i.e., a one-bit drink, two-bit drink, etc.
Don’t confuse the usage of the word “bit” as a unit of money with the “bit” you put in horses mouths to control them, of course. I would reckon there was little confusion but then with some folks, you never know, do you? (That was a lame try for some humor, good readers. Sorry about that.)
All in all, I love the way our language has been shaped over the years, and Westernisms of all sorts have played key roles in shaping America’s brand of English since our forefathers brought it across the Pond and over the prairies and mountains.
So, how much money is a bit has no real different answer for modern-day money than it did back in the currency of the Old West. It’s generally around a dime, since we don’t have half-cent pieces. And remember, a dime really had very little spending power these days, so that makes a bit not worth a whole lot. But for those of us who love the West, it’s all pretty interesting stuff, isn’t it?