A few weeks ago I was gently and kindly reproved at a round-table meeting for using the phrase “more bang for your buck,” and told that it is a Trumpery vulgarism with its origins in the brothel. Job done: I could no longer say it unselfconsciously, even if I wanted to, and it is no loss to an intelligent vocabulary. But I wondered if the derivation is actually right.
The various sources I’ve consulted all suggest that its source is military, the bang explosive and originally nuclear; and that it passed into advertising language (rather like Pepsi’s “more bounce for the ounce” of 1950), and thence to business where “bang for your buck” is generally treated, quite deadpan, as a synonym for ROI, or Return on Investment. The only reference I can find to the brothel is dismissive: “Just in passing, I ought to mention that a theory that this phrase originated as a reference to prostitution is suggested by some. There’s no truth whatever in that notion.” In this case it is presumably a back-attribution, a slightly prim but specious presumption of etymological guilt that has gained currency.
Which is perhaps a good thing, because the TLS this week contains an enchanting passage (in a splendid review of Jack Hartnell’s Mediæval Bodies):
[The statues of Charles IV and Jeanne d’Evereux] are clasping small bags close to their chests. The bags are sculpted to appear to be of thin leather, and there is something coiled within them … the coils represent Charles and Jeanne’s intestines. These sculptures were made for the Abbey of Maubuisson where, for several generations, French kings had their entrails sent for burial after their deaths. In separating out their innards from the rest of their bodies, it was thought that the dead would increase their chances of escaping purgatory, by doubling the number of prayers said at the site of their bodies. They sought twice the salvific bang for their intercessory buck.
I am quite content to have purged a lazy and unattractive phrase from my conversation, but delighted nonetheless to find it used so effectively in a soteriological context.