Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

When did the word “cash” stop meaning cash?


I have long been irritated by the Coinstar scam machines in supermarkets, which proudly proclaim “Coins in. Cash out” on the front. Their website gives the impression that they have even registered the phrase “Coins to Cash” as a trademark, although there’s no trace of that in the IPO’s trademark database.

This despite the fact that what they actually do is the precise opposite. They take cash, in the form of coins, and then give you vouchers that – at least at my local Morrisons – have to be spent there and then in the store as they expire in 24 hours. And they deduct a “handling fee” for taking the cash off you, so you end up with less than you started with.

I’ve often been tempted to print off a new slogan and stick it on the front of the machines:

Cash in. Vouchers worth less than the cash you paid for them out.

That would, at least, be honest. It would also retain the traditional meaning of the word “cash”.

More recently, though, I’ve encountered another abuser of the word “cash”. At least, in this case, the perpetrators aren’t misusing it to deliberately deceive you, unlike Coinstar, but it is still annoying.

This time, it’s one of the car buying websites, (not to be confused with the somewhat better known outfit with a very similar name using the word “buy” instead of “want”). WWAC, as I will now call them for reasons of simplicity and laziness, are currently running radio adverts for their service. After extolling the virtues of their car-buying service, they end with the promise that they will “pay cash directly into your bank account”. They make similar promises of cash payment on their website.

Except, of course, that they don’t pay cash. They pay directly into you bank account. That’s what we techies like to call “Electronic Funds Transfer”, or EFT. It’s more commonly known in the finance industry as a BACS payment, or sometimes CHAPS. Or, more recently, Faster Payments, which doesn’t seem to have got abbreviated yet. Either way, it’s very much not the same as the traditional way of paying for a used car, which is to hand over a wad of twenties which the seller then painstakingly counts before giving you the keys.

Now, I’m not so much of a linguistic luddite as to argue that words should never be allowed to change meanings. But this use of “cash” to mean “not cash” does irritate me, not least because in at least one of these cases it’s deliberately being misused in order to mislead. It’s the sort of thing that ought to be covered by the Trade Descriptions Act, but, as far as I can see, actually isn’t. You can’t sell something that is black and call it white, or vice versa, but you can advertise that you pay in cash when, in reality, cash is the one thing you will never pay. That seems wrong to me.

Incidentally, if you do have piles of coins that you need to get rid of, don’t put it into Coinstar machines. If you’ve got really large amounts, take it to the bank, where they will conveniently weigh and sort it for you and then either pay it into your account or give it back to you as notes. Or, if it’s a relatively small amount (up to around twenty quid or so), tip it into the coin hoppers at a supermarket self-service checkout. The machines will take what they need to pay for what you’ve just bought (which could be as little as a bar of chocolate or your lunchtime sandwich), and then give you change.

Even better, the change will be in the smallest possible combination of notes and coins. So if you buy a sandwich worth £1.95 with a pile of coins worth £19.51 in total, then what you will get back is a £10 note, a £5 note, a £2 coin, a 50p coin, a 5p coin and a penny. Which is a lot less cumbersome than what you started with. Try it, it really works.