In a recent interview about a fascinating-looking telephone-hotline documentary, phone psychic and infomercial star Ms. Cleo revealed that she’s not just gay — “I’m as gay as a two dollar bill,” she declared.
Really? There’s nothing gay, straight, or generally sexual about a $2 bill, as far as I can discern.
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Ms. Cleo gives us a fine example of the bastardization of the anachronistic phrase “queer as a three-dollar bill.” First, some definitions.
“Queer as a three-dollar bill”:
phony as a three-dollar billand queer as a three-dollar bill:
Phony; bogus. (*Also: as ~.) This guy’s as phony as a three-dollar bill.
Go to (as) phony as a three-dollar bill Definitely or obviously homosexual. (Usually objectionable.)
Okay, that basically makes sense — in the context of queer meaning “phony” and three-dollar bill representing nonexistence. But at some point in the past few decades, both parts of the phrase changed! What kind of crazy alchemy was at work?
Although queer had been employed to mean “gay” for quite a while, it appears to have picked up mainstream usage only in the final quarter of the twentieth century — the same period in which the $2 bill was reintroduced into circulation (1976). Coincidence?
Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. But maybe not. As a former linguistics major, I explain it as simply my armchair attempt to wrap my head around the sociolinguistic transformation of “three-dollar bill” to “two-dollar bill.” It appears that within a concentrated period of time, Americans began using the terms queer and two-dollar bill a lot more (even while the $2 bill was shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, as it remains).
The mangling of the phrase had another prominent appearance last year, when Sherri Shepherd of The View uttered the quote “gayer than a gay two-dollar bill.” Wow. Not just gayer than a regular ol’ $2 bill — gayer than a gosh-darn gay $2 bill!
And thus has it been for decades that a phrase once meaning “phony” now means “a delightfully whimsical degree of gayness.”
Folks of all stripes whip it out, even those who are otherwise intelligent and educated, such as this acquaintance of mine:
“For a while you could say ‘queer as a two-dollar bill’ because there was no such thing as a two-dollar bill.” —acquaintance, June 19, 2013. Let’s not even go into the reasons why this quote is interesting.
Now that I’ve ripped that topic into shreds, some amusement:
Summer 1986, Mackinac Island, Michigan: I remember seeing an unusual item and loudly remarking, “That’s queer!” My parents corrected me; I was told to not use that phrase. (1) My middle-aged parents calling me out on this (2) in remote Michigan (3) in 1986 adds up to a three-pronged reason for believing the phrase must have had some legs for at least a few years before that.