bang for the buck

An idiom meaning getting value for your money or work. Sometimes the phrase is used to mean “a better value for the money spent.”

The first citation of the phrase in print appears to be an advertisement in Metals and Plastics Publications, 1940. No advertiser would use a colloquial expression in an ad unless it was understandable to his audience, so there are probably earlier citations yet to be found. 

The phrase originated from the slang usage of the words “bang,” which means “excitement” and “buck,” which means “money.” “More bang for the buck” was preceded by “more bounce to the ounce,” an advertising slogan used in 1950 to market the carbonated soft drink Pepsi.

The phrase “bigger bang for the buck” was notably used by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles Erwin Wilson, in 1954. He used it to describe the New Look policy of depending on nuclear weapons, rather than a large regular army, to keep the Soviet Union in check. Thus its first use was quite literal: With bang referring to ‘firepower’ or ‘weaponry,’ it really did mean ‘bombs for one’s money.’ The alliteration of bang and buck helps to make the phrase memorable.

William Safire discussed “bang for the buck” in his 1968 book, New Language of Politics and mentioned the use of it in 1954. ”More bang for the buck” was also used in the late 1960s by the US military to refer to how it wanted to receive more combat power from the armaments it possessed.

In 2001, author Matthew L. Stone wrote that the phrase “has been overused almost to the point of becoming meaningless.” Lauren Powers, in her 2010 book The Trouble with Thinking, wrote that whenever she hears the cliché “bigger bang for the buck,” she becomes “distracted” by the phrase’s history and cannot continue paying attention to the speaker’s words.

There’s a theory that this phrase originated as a reference to prostitution. There’s no truth whatever in that notion, apt though it may be.

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