until the eagle grins

Susan Cheever in Newsweek for August 13th and 20th, p. 6,“Gin Without the Tonic”, on the rich:

There are still titans with a conscience in the 21st century — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey, for instance — but some of the rich hang on to their money until the eagle grins.

The point of interest here is until the eagle grins, an idiom that will probably baffle most non-Americans (and some Americans as well).

The eagle in question is the one on reverse of the U.S. one-dollar bill (there’s the money connection), a stern bald eagle that is never going to grin, so the expression conveys ‘forever’.

The expression originates in a Depression-era hit song by Jimmy Cox, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, which has been recorded many many times — by Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Lillian Axe, Leadbelly, Big Joe Williams, Eric Clapton, Derek and the Dominos, Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Odetta, and others. Each recording varies the lyrics a bit. Here are two versions of the lyrics for the first two verses, one from Bessie Smith in 1929, one from Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album (1992):

Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spendin’ my money, I didn’t care
I carried my friends out for a good time
Buying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine

Then I began to fall so low
I didn’t have a friend and no place to go
So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again
I’m gonna hold on to it till them eagle’s grin

Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spent all my money, I just did not care
Took all my friends out for a good time
Bought bootleg whiskey, champagne and wine

Then I began to fall so low
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go
I get my hands on a dollar again
I’m gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins

These are the lyrics from sites on the web. But the song is different from performance to performance. Here are the recordings:

You’ll see that Cheever reproduces the hanging on to the money from the song as well as the eagle grinning; her version is only a slight paraphrase of the original.

[In the Clapton version, note the paratactic conditional, lacking the subordinator if: “I get my hands on a dollar again / I’m gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins”. The two clauses are simply concatenated, and the hearer has to figure out the semantic relationship between them.]


One Response to “until the eagle grins”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    Another set of phrases having to do with money is interesting, as I use it all the time. My husband is from Southeast Asia, and people from his particular country are said to be parsimonious to a fault. I often say that “he squeezes a penny so tightly that the Queen screams for mercy”. In the United States, change the Queen to Lincoln.

Leave a Reply to chrishansenhome Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: