Learn English – What does a person “with about two dollars to one’s name” mean


I found the phrase, “a homeless man in New York with about two dollars to his name” in the New Yorker magazine’s article (November 29, 2011) titled “Politics of Dissolution.” It begins with the following sentence

“You can’t get much further apart on the socio-economic ladder that Peter Thiel and Ray Kachel. The former is a silicon Valley billionaire entrepreneur, venture capitalist with sharply conservative –libertarian views, the latter is, currently, a homeless man in New York City, with left-wing politics and about two dollars to his name.”

As I didn’t get the idea of a homeless man ‘with about two dollars to his name,’ I looked for its meaning on Google.

Wikipedia provides the definition of ‘two dollar’ simply as “the United States two-dollar bill is a current denomination of US currency. President Thomas Jefferson is featured on the obverse of the note.”

As a derivative phrase from ‘two dollars, only Urban Dictionary registers "two dollar scratchie" as;
When you have a bitter break up or disagreement with your partner and their name becomes a non-speakable word, substitute it for "two dollar scratchie". If anyone says their actual name instead of the substituted "two dollar scratchie" – they gotta buy you one!

Neither of both definitions seems to be applicable to the above homeless man description.

What does “someone with two dollars with his (her) name” mean? Is it a popular phrase to mean a nameless person with no value attached to his or her name / being?

Can I apply ‘two dollars’ to any other insignificant articles or things than a person in the same way as ‘no worth for a dime’?

Best Answer

Google shows over a hundred thousand references for the quoted phrase "two dollars to his name". Some of those references are bogus (e.g. two as part of thirty-two) but most of them that I looked at seem to entail the same meaning as in the subject quote: just about broke, having maybe a dollar bill or two, maybe some small change.

In short, "two dollars to his name" is an American colloquialism, a set phrase that indicates a person is financially busted.

As to the "nameless person with no value attached to his or her name / being" idea: No, as I understand the phrase it's entirely about financial status, and says nothing about the person's value or worth as a person. The phrase (as a whole) is not useful for other purposes than that, I think. Of course the two main parts of it (two dollar and to his name meaning, owned by him) are easily adapted. However, for terming something worthless, two cents is far more likely.

Here are a few examples from among the Google results mentioned above:

...he owned hundreds of acres of prime timber land but you couldn’t tell by looking at him that he had more than two dollars to his name. - Tim George, 2009
When he reached Pittsburg he had but two dollars to his name. - The Ariel, 1827
He wouldn't admit it to Jupiter, but he only had about two dollars to his name. - The Gun, O. C. Judd, 2000
He was a Russian immigrant who came to the United States in 1913 with two dollars to his name. - Barry Popik, 2005
With two dollars to his name, Ponzi emigrated from the U.S. to Canada... - ScoundrelsWiki, 2008
He had two dollars to his name, so one dollar went to pay for the marriage license and the other dollar went to pay the preacher. - Glenwood Resident Celebrates 99th Birthday, 2011