"Made Beaver" and more

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As of March 17 2017, DCHP-2 went live: the Second Edition of A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles. The Project History, by Stefan Dollinger and Margery Fee, is worth reading — it includes this interesting variation on James Murray's Reading Programme:

Because funding was slow to materialize, we adapted our data collection methods to a format suitable for the classroom. Students learned original research and provided some data for the project (Dollinger 2010a). In January 2008, with the help of UBC and SSHRC funding, we were in the position to open our offices. In the "Canadian English Lab" we completed between early 2008 and Fall 2010 the main data collection for the Bank of Canadian English based on a data "harvesting" scheme and a list of codified Canadianisms compiled from three print dictionaries (Canadian Oxford Dictionary 2004, the Gage Canadian Dictionary 1997 and the ITP Nelson Dictionary 1997). The years 2010-11 were primarily occupied with the proofreading of the scanned DCHP-1 and its conversion for the web. In 2007, UBC Archives scanned DCHP-1 free of charge, which produced the file that was imported to our online dictionary environment. In 2012-13 we began to work out the editorial principles that would guide the editing process of DCHP-2. Drafting of entries began in 2012 and was largely completed by the spring of 2015. The revising of entries was slower, partly because drafting was handed over to undergraduate and graduate students, which added more training tasks than is customary. Three student assistants, Baillie Ford, Alexandra Gaylie and Gabrielle Lim, drafted most of the entries. Other student drafters were Emily Briggs, Jona Dervishaj, Ana Martic and Dorota Lockyer.

After a quick browse, my favorite entry so far is made beaver, defined as "a unit of exchange equivalent to the value of one prime beaver pelt", with variant forms M.B. and MBeaver, and the North West equivalent plu. Some example sentences:

. . . experience has taught the hunter that he will get 50 MB for the robe be it large or small, so he cuts it down in order to make room on the sled for a larger number.
Many of my Indians have been in since my last, some have done well others indifferent & some very bad indeed only paying 15 out of 65 M Beaver their Debts.
Poitras, a Chipewyan half-breed, arrived, and delivered 81 made beavers in prime furs, though he says he has been sickly all winter.
Foxes were valued and an equivalent amount in "Made Beaver" or shiny round HBC tokens was spread out on the counter.

This is a lexicographic reminder of the serious historical influence of the North American fur trade. More trivially, it evokes for me childhood memories of the old man down the road (in rural eastern Connecticut) who lived by trapping wild animals and selling the pelts.

And in the spirit of the enterprise, I'll note that there's a typo (probably an OCR error) in the made beaver entry:



  1. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:54 am

    "Made beaver" reminds me of–and potentially influenced (?)–buck meaning a dollar. Though OED (buck n. 8) still has "origin obscure…chiefly U.S." (from 1856ff), there are quotes that indicate buck meant buckskin.

    1854 History of the State of Ohio: First Period, 1650-1787 By James Wickes Taylor (Cincinnati and Sandusky, 1854) p. 297:

    The English said we should buy everything of them, and since we had got saucy, we should give two bucks for a blanket (superscript 3) which we used to get for one: we should do as they pleased, and they killed some of our people to make the rest fear them.

    (footnote 3) The skin of a buck was "legal tender," in the wilderness, for a dollar.

    1848 Pioneer History: Being an Account of the First Examinations of the Ohio Valley, and the Early Settlement of the Northwest Territory… By Samuel Prescott Hildreth (Cincinnati) p.138:

    On the frontiers, and especially among the Indians, the value of property was estimated in bucks, instead of dollars or pounds–a buck was valued at one dollar. A copy of the following certificate, recorded in Colonel Morgan's journal, among several others of the same tenor, is worth preserving:
    "I do certify, that i am indebted to the beared, Captian Johnny, seven
    bucks and one doe, for the use of the states, this 19th April, 1779. Signed, Samuel Sample, assistant quartermaster. The above is due to him for pork, for the use of the garrison at Fort Laurens.
    (signed) John Gibson, Colonel"
    Colonel Gibson was the commander of this post. These certificates were
    redeemed at fort Pitt, by the Indian agent, or the commandant of the place.

    1841 Cincinnati in 1841: Its Early Annals and Future Prospects By Charles Cist (Cincinnati) p.215 :

    They had sold the Indians whiskey that had frozen in the cask, before they reached their camp ; they made an Indian pay for a rifle gun thirty, the Indians say forty, buck-skins, which they value at one dollar each, besides a horse of fifteen pounds price.

    1851 Historical Collections of Ohio: Containing a Collection of the Most
    Interesting Facts,… (Cincinnati) By Henry Howe p.274:

    A muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a racoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, "the almighty dollar."

    1824 Sketches of the History, Manners, and Customs of the North
    American Indians. By James Buchanan p. 204:
    each buck-skin, one dollar

  2. Brett said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 8:08 am

    I remember taking a school field trip to Fort Vancouver in Washington state about thirty years ago. When we stopped into the trading post, the living history interpreter there rattled off the prices of everything in the shop, all prices quoted in "made beaver." The only thing that cost more than one made beaver for a single item was a flintlock musket, which cost four made beaver.

  3. charlotte said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 8:33 am

    Following on the fur trade line of thought– I was for some time perplexed by Roger Williams, in his Key to the Language of Native America, including the Narragansett for "this otter is reddish." Then I got a black cat, saw her fur turn reddish in the summer sun, and realized a summer pelt would be worth far less than a thick winter one.

  4. thomas quinn said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 10:23 am

    "made", I suppose, in the sense that the pelt had been tanned

  5. KevinM said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 11:19 am

    Or the beaver joined an organized crime family.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

    That "sawbuck" for "ten-dollar bill" seems to be attested earlier than unequivocal uses of "buck" for "dollar" is one of several reasons to be skeptical about the proposed leather etymology of the latter.

    Google books turns up some 19th century uses of "made beaver" in American publications, but they mostly seem to be in contexts describing the fur trade on the Canadian side of the border. Perhaps the American fur trade of the early 19th century (in which, e.g. John Jacob Astor made his fortune) used different jargon?

  7. Brett said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 7:54 pm

    @thomas quinn: Yes "made" is in the sense of "tanned and stretched."

  8. Chinook Man PhD. said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 11:45 pm

    Coincidentally, I made myself a note this morning to follow up on a possible typo in this new wonderful edition of DCHP. (And in my excitement, accidentally texted it to my bemused girlfriend.) Because I'm a specialist in the pidgin, Chinook Jargon, I used the search function to glance thru the relevant entries. One of them has the phrase "antkiti Siwash", which I think should be "ankiti Siwash". Compare the quoted passage at this link.

  9. January First-of-May said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:28 am

    There have been some Hudson's Bay Company tokens denominated in made beaver (which is how I first encountered that term – in the discussions of those tokens on assorted numismatic sites), but, to the best of my knowledge, none of them actually spelled that out (though some did include a picture of a beaver).

  10. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 3:28 am

    J. W. Brewer: "That "sawbuck" for "ten-dollar bill" seems to be attested earlier than unequivocal uses of "buck" for "dollar" is one of several reasons to be skeptical about the proposed leather etymology of the latter."

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 9:13 am

    Stephen Goranson: Oh, just that it has the "feel" of bogus folk-etymology. The "dollar" sense becomes common in texts a problematically long time (multiple generations) after the vanishing of the sort of frontier non-cash economy where buckskins might have been used as an informal unit of account. The existence of multiple proposed etymologies, none overwhelmingly convincing, for the idiom "pass the buck" adds to my skepticism,* as does the existence of pieces seeking to debunk a folk-etymology claiming it is a racially-tainted expression from the days of slavery rooted in the sense of "buck" meaning "black male" (i.e. the desire to debunk that causes debunkers to seize on a rival folk etymology of dubious historicity rather than just say "the truth is we don't affirmatively know where it comes from, but your theory is particularly improbable").

    *Partridge speculates that buck-for-dollar is the same "buck" as in "pass the buck" for which he takes the common poker-based etymology, which leads me to the unkind speculation that you are likely to find that a more plausible connection if you have never played poker, since if you have played poker you are unlikely to mix up the buck a/k/a https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Button_(poker) with the chips used to represent dollars.

  12. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 7:10 am

    Thanks, J. W. Brewer, for comment, though I can't say that those assumptions mirror my own. I consider the origin of "pass the buck" not settled–if that's not too meta. I can say that I reported the above quotes in 2006 (to ads-l) and that, fwiw, later, Green's Dictionary of Slang used two of them in Buck n. 3, dollar (OED's n. 8), opining: "orig. abbr. SE buckskin, an item used as barter in 19C America."

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