18

I remember encountering the phrase when I was a kid, not knowing the context, not being able to get a satisfactory answer from the adults, and figuring I'd discover it when I was older.

Now it's 700 years later and I'm re-watching the Scorsese film, which is loosely based on the novel of the same name, and realizing I still don't know what the phrase means.

I do have this vague feeling that the phrase pre-dates the novel, but obv could be mistaken.

So, why is this book called "The Color of Money"?


Epilogue

I feel I should explain why I accepted an answer with so few votes in comparison to the others. I don't think I've ever agonized so much over an SE answer.

I think it's a coincidence that both pool tables and currency notes are green. At best a happy one, at worst a superficial one whose obviousness threatens to obscure more meaningful readings. Moreover, the table doesn't have to be the same color as currency for the author to say that a pool hustler looks out over the baize and metaphorically sees the riches he hopes to win on that battlefield.

I think Tevis riffed an idiom that pool gamblers use to demand proof of value because the characters in his story are very concerned with whether they and each other are actually in possession of what is required to make their scheme work. It's all a big gamble built on top of many smaller gambles, and their overarching concern is with the color of their own money, so to speak. And to resort again to hypotheticals, if it were common for gamblers to say "let me heft your coinpurse," I think the book would be titled "The Weight of Coinpurses" or somesuch.

Many thanks to everybody who contributed to the discussion.

2
  • There's also the youth of Vincent and the envy of Eddie, each of which overarching conditions are associated with the color green - Vincent is young or not quite ripe, Eddie is under the spell of the "green-eyed monster." Is this a coincidence or intentional?
    – user18266
    Mar 17, 2023 at 21:52
  • In Blood Meridian as Toadvine and The Judge negotiate for Toadvine's hat, finally the former says, "Let's see your color." And The Judge then spills a bunch of silver and gold coins on the ground --so synonymous with money, from the days when coins were either gold, silver or copper I guess. But then the title is sort of redundant...
    – releseabe
    Jan 12 at 4:23

3 Answers 3

5

D. A. Hosek's quote from the novel is interesting and relevant, but fails to note that it riffing on an old phrase.

The Colour of Money

The colour of money is a phrase that is often used in the betting world, but what exactly does the colour of money mean?
...
in the betting world the colour of money has a more precise meaning. In this case, to see the colour of someone’s money means to see proof that the person has money to bet with.

For example, if there were two men in a bar and one invited the other to bet £50 on a game of pool, the person being invited to bet might respond: “Show me the colour of your money first,” which basically means, “Let me see that you have £50 on you to bet with.” If the bettor can demonstrate that he has the cash on him to bet with, the wager might be accepted, but if the bettor can’t show the colour of his money, it would probably be rejected.

So, it is a phrase that a pool hustler might use in regard to making a bet. But also has a clever double meaning with pool tables and dollar bills both being green.

The phrase itself dates back to at least 1905, if not older.

27

In the novel, Tevis writes:

His skill on the arena of green cloth—cloth that was itself the color of money—could never be only pretense.

So the idea is making the connection between the green baize of the pool table with the green color of US paper currency (the green is more pronounced on the reverse of the bill, which is why one of the nicknames for US paper money is “greenbacks”).

1
  • 10
    The green was also greener (and not mixed with any other distracting colors) prior to 2003.
    – hobbs
    Apr 15, 2022 at 15:08
10

Hosek is right, but further connotations of the color of money refer to the fact that profit and gain are powerful, perhaps the most powerful, driving forces behind human behaviour (often at its worst). Observe also that "color" can connote mood, conviction, political or philosophical ideology.

What's the colour of money, what's the colour of money?

Don't tell me that you think it's green

me I know it's red

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  • 2
    youtube.com/watch?v=tTp37xBhj3c
    – Valorum
    Apr 15, 2022 at 15:26
  • 1
    This reminds me of the phrase "color of law," in which "color" is like a disguise.
    – Tom
    Apr 15, 2022 at 17:10
  • 4
    @DarrelHoffman, it's worth noting that in the UK we do have phrases like "let's see the colour of your money" (i.e. a demand that a person prove they are in possession of a certain quantity of money, such as when playing a game like pool). I think people are also vaguely familiar enough with American culture that "green" has an association with money.
    – Steve
    Apr 15, 2022 at 17:31
  • 4
    FWIW, in 1986, when the movie was released, the £1 note was predominantly green — though higher-denomination notes were combinations with grey/blue, orange/brown, and blue/brown.
    – gidds
    Apr 15, 2022 at 21:03
  • 2
    @gidds - Although they were still legal tender in 1986, the English £1 note was almost an unheard-of method of payment by then, having been entirely replaced by the £1 coin.
    – Valorum
    Apr 16, 2022 at 7:03

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