Definition: Worthless banknote – valueless money.
Origin: early 19th century America
Why this word?
Words that describe valueless currency are, sadly, becoming more and more relevant these days. I came across this word recently when reading a history of the dollar. Shinplaster, it seems, came to refer to a banknote that was so devalued or valueless that its value was akin to a plaster – or Band-Aid – that one might apply to a wound on one’s shin. This word became common slang in North America and Australia.
However, it seems that there just might be an added, hidden depth to this word that may explain its emergence as a slang term for a worthless banknote.
America didn’t have any national currency to speak of until the Civil War. Before that, the public relied on individual banks issuing their own currency and hoping that the banks had the gold in their reserves to back up the promise of the banknote – a banknote being a promise of gold. This replaced an earlier system of gold itself – the use of gold coins. Spanish gold coins were, in the 17th century, the most popular. They could be physically cut into eight small pieces rather easily – making small financial transactions possible.
The name for this Spanish gold dollar? The piaster – itself based on the Latin emplastrum and the Greek emplastron. Thus, given that the word piaster was already known, it does not take much of a stretch to see how popular culture used the similar sounding shinplaster to describe something at the opposite end of the value scale to the good ol’ reliable piaster.
How and when to use this word in a sentence:
It is difficult to know if shinplaster can still be used. The word plaster has been superseded by Band-Aid in America – thus, people will not know what you mean by the word plaster. Conversely, in the British Isles, where plaster is still used as a word, the slang term shinplaster never existed. I’m afraid that the word shinplaster is now as useless and debased as the currency to which it refers.