Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dollars To Doughnuts

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 4, 2013

When you’re betting dollars to doughnuts, what you’re really doing is betting on an almost certainly sure thing. In other words, dollars have a value, while doughnuts — being shaped like zeros — have none.

In the magazine, SaskBusiness the editor, Keith Moen, authored an article on what he referred to as “messy, fear-mongering campaigns” in 2003 and again in 2004. Published on June 1, 2004, his point was that Canada couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be thought of as a Third World country, the Canadian economy didn’t succeed on the backs of slaves or serfs, and no Canadian he knew of was oppressed under a dictatorship. The editorial ended with these words of wisdom to their readership:

Yet that tax reduction line which separates good from evil must surely be a blurred one, as I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that most of our good public servants take advantage of their pension plans — even if they’re RRSP-eligible, which of course qualifies as a tax reduction strategy.

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? It seems more than just a little self-serving and hypocritical. Sort of like the pot calling the kettle black … or a jalapeno trying to be as cool as a cucumber.

It’s the sort of expression that’s part of the lingo but doesn’t necessarily show up in print as often as one would expect. Sure, it’s shown up in movie dialogue often enough, but it’s not in print as often as it once was. In the Schenectady Gazette of January 19, 1948 it was found in the article “Big Talk, But …” where Under Secretary Of State Robert Lovette discussed the ongoing U.S. presence in Berlin. Not everyone thought that was such a good idea as evidenced by this excerpt from the article:

It’s a dollar to doughnuts bet that the Russian leaders are chuckling up their sleeves. For Russia has every important advantage. Russia’s proximity to Germany, its military might, its diplomatic methods based on the blackjack, its Communist philosophy that appeals to many Europeans who can’t understand democracy, all put Russia in a better position than any of the other occupying powers to dictate to the Germans effectively.

It was such a well-known saying that it appeared as the title of a serial story by author Edith Ellington, and carried by such newspapers as the San Jose News in early 1941. Yes, the soap opera-style serial story was entitled, “Dollars To Doughnuts.”

The Oxnard Daily Courier of June 1, 1914 carried a United Press story entitled, “Tango Commercialized Approaches Its End.” The story claimed the death knell of the tango when it announced that a group of financiers on Wall Street had banded together to corner the tango talent market. It was described in this way:

Society takes up a fad. It flourishes on the Avenue and makes a noise like a dollar. Then the keen nosed mew of money, scenting currency, take hold of it and organize it. The craze then takes on a commercial aspect. Society hears about it and abandons the fad. The lower strata learn that society has dropped the fad, so each in turn drops it.

That has been the history of a long procession of freak things. Never before perhaps did anything so intangible as a dance go through this evolution, but it is dollars to doughnuts that with the money kings playing ping-pong with the tango, it will lose its popularity.

As we all know, the tango still exists and has been seen every season that “Dancing With The Stars” has been on television in recent history.

Back on May 16, 1890 that matter of bills and gags, Republicans and Democrats in the House, and what senators had to say about all manner of things was reported in the article, “Shutting Off The Debate.” With regards to the Dependent Pension bill and the Service bill, the following was shared with readers of then New York Times.

The Dependent Pension bill of the Senate and the Service Pension bill of the House are now in the hands of conferees  the House conference Committee having been announced to-day. Some fear is expressed by the ever-anxious lest there shall be a disagreement, so obstinate that there will be a dead-lock, and no pension legislation. The pension agents may be relied upon to break the dead-lock, and as they are more interested in the Senate bill than in that of the House, it is “dollars to doughnuts” that the Senate bill, in one respect at least, will come out of the conference victorious, notwithstanding Gen. Hawley’s injunction to the Senate that it was “not to be stampeded by claim agents.

A few years prior, the expression could be found in the Daily Nevada State Journal on February 6, 1876 in a front page story that stated:

Whenever you hear any resident of a community attempting to decry the local paper… it’s dollars to doughnuts that such a person is either mad at the editor or is owing the office for subscription or advertising.

Five weeks later, the same newspaper printed this in their publication on March 11, 1876 in an article found on page 3:

Several Benoites took advantage of the half fare tickets offered to those who were to attend the ball given by the railroad boys at Carson last night, and attended it. It’s dollars to doughnuts all enjoyed themselves.

For it to appear in a newspaper without quotation marks around the expression indicates that its meaning was understood by readers. For it to be part of the jargon in 1876 implies that it was in use in the preceding decade at the very least.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about doughnuts in her story “Farmer Boy” based on the childhood of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s husband. The setting for the story is 1866 and the following passage is found in the story:

That was Saturday night. All day long Mother had been baking, and when Almanzo went into the kitchen for the milkpans, she was still frying doughnuts. The place was full of their hot, brown smell, and the wheaty smell of the new bread, the spicy smell of cakes, and the syrupy smell of pies.

Almanzo took the biggest doughnut from the pan and bit off its crisp end. Mother was rolling out the golden dough, slashing it into long strips, rolling and twisting the strips.Her fingers flew, you could hardly see them. The strips seem to twist themselves under her hands, and to leap into the big copper kettle of swirling hot fat.

Plump! They went to the bottom, sending up bubbles. Then quickly they came popping up, to float and slowly swell, till they rolled themselves over, their pale golden backs going into the fat, and their plump brown bellies rising out of it.

The ease with which doughnuts were made is evident in this passage … certainly much easier than making a dollar in 1866.

American author Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859) — who best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” — included doughnuts in his novel, “Knickerbocker’s History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty” published in 1809. The author described doughnuts or, should I say, his main character, Diedrich Knickerbocker, described them thusly:

Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple-pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks —- a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, except in genuine Dutch families.

That being said, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) anthropologist, Paul R. Mullins, Ph.D. wrote a book entitled, “Glazed America: A History Of The Doughnut” that the “first cookbook mentioning doughnuts was an 1803 English volume which included doughnuts in an appendix of American recipes.”

It can safely be guessed that the expression came into vogue sometime in the 1850s, giving the word doughnut time to ensconce itself in the English language and backdating the ease with which the expression dollars to doughnuts was used in newspapers by 1876.

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One Response to “Dollars To Doughnuts”

  1. […] « Dollars To Doughnuts […]

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