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I got interested in this when reading a historical novel set in 1860s New York. The heroine wnet out on her birthday, alone, with a couple of dollars "mad money". I wondered what the origin of the phrase might be. I found an article that explained it.

"Mad Money: A Semantic Change" by George Javor in American Speech, Vol. 50, No. 1/2, (Spring - Summer, 1975),.

Apparently "mad money" was "noted as early as 1922 by Howard J. Savage (Dialect Notes 5: 148) at the end of an article on Bryn Mawr slang. Savage's definition is 'money a girl carries in case she has a row with her escort and wishes to go home alone.' "

But it developed a second meaning:

"By 1946, a second meaning of the term had been recorded by C. M. Woodard ("A Word-List from Virginia and North Carolina," PADS, no. 6, pp. 4-43). He gave the meaning already noted ('money taken along by a girl on a date to be used in case she falls out with her companion and wants to come home early,' p. 20), and then added: 'Also money used by a girl or woman for small purchases.' Among general dictionaries, Webster's Third was the first to record the term with both meanings. Its definitions are 'carfare carried by a girl on a date to provide a means of escaping her escort in the event of unwanted familiarities; broadly: a small sum carried by a woman for emergency use.' The second definition is similar to Woodard's, but it relates the sum used for "small purchases" to the sense of emergency implicit in the older meaning."

The author then gave some of his students a "questionnaire that they completed asked: "What is your definition of mad money? If you know the term in more than one meaning, give both." An overwhelming number, 92 percent, gave as their answers a definition that is different from either of those in the dictionaries. This new meaning of mad money may be phrased thus: 'money to be spent FOOLISHLY, for some- thing you DON'T NEED, on the SPUR OF THE MOMENT or FRIVOLOUSLY, indeed CRAZILY.' One or more of the emphasized concepts appeared in practically every answer."

Javor points out that the meanings of "mad" from angry to crazy allow this drift. His article was written in 1975. I wonder what "mad money" can mean now!

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2008-07-21 15:43:05
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