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I am reading The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, and I've found it difficult to interpret the phrase "for a million bucks" in the context below.

Then a funny thing happened. When I got to the museum, all of a sudden I wouldn't have gone inside for a million bucks. It just didn't appeal to me.

This is quoted from the last paragraph of the chapter 16 in the novel.

I thought this meant Holden didn't wanna go inside because he felt as if the entrance fee was high as a million bucks. But a Japanese translation of this scene says that Holden wouldn't have wanted to enter the museum if he had gotten a million bucks.

I want to know the correct interpretation in this scene. I'd appreciate it if you would answer my question.

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  • 7
    A museum with a million dollar entry fee is a museum that goes out of business pretty quickly. Even the obscenely rich people who could afford that would probably opt to find something better to spend their money on. Oct 14 at 14:46
  • @DarrelHoffman: One could make the argument that the big art auctions are basically temporary museums with multimillion dollar entry fees, seeing as nobody is ever going to see any of that art again...
    – Kevin
    Oct 14 at 17:13
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    @Kevin Another good example of hyperbole! You do realize that a lot of the things you see in museums now aren't owned by the museum, but on loan from the actual owner?
    – chepner
    Oct 14 at 20:41
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Your interpretation of

for a million bucks

to mean

the fee was a million dollars

is not 100% wrong. In the following dialogue, it would indeed mean "the fee is a million dollars":

A: What do I have to do to get inside?
B: You can get inside for a million bucks.

But in the passage you've quoted, a well-known idiom is formed. It is signaled by the negated subjunctive:

I wouldn't have [verb] for [price]

is an expression of

Even if you offer me [price], I refuse to [verb].

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    "In this dialogue" is confusing when compared to "in the passage you've quoted" while they are supposed to mean something different. Maybe just an ambiguous 'this' in the first phrase? I assume 'this dialogue' references the phrase in isolation as shown above the comment?
    – TCooper
    Oct 15 at 23:04
  • 1
    @TCooper -- edited my answer to clarify. Thanks for pointing out the ambiguity. Oct 15 at 23:51
  • I would drop have from the template, or adjust the tense of the translation to match. Oct 16 at 6:52
52

Literally it means "I would refuse to go inside, even if you paid me a million bucks ($1000000) to go inside."

It is hyperbole. It is understood as meaning "I really didn't want to go inside".

Mum: Eat up your vegetables

Child: They taste horrid. I wouldn't eat them for a million bucks.

It is nothing to do with the price of the tickets for the museum.

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    Compare "...for all the jewels in England" or similar vast sums of wealth and riches. Contrast "can't be had for love nor money."
    – randomhead
    Oct 14 at 5:52
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    In the UK, we used to (maybe still do ) say 'for all the tea in China'. Oct 14 at 6:38
  • 16
    It's also worth noting the drastic difference in the value of $1 million at the time of writing compared to now. Very hyperbolic.
    – TCooper
    Oct 14 at 14:59
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    @TCooper: It's true that $1M then is about $10M now, but that doesn't affect the meaning. Holden's not naming a price; he's not saying "if you gave me $1M I wouldn't go in, but if you gave me $2M I might consider it." He's just saying "there's practically nothing you could do persuade me to go inside." Oct 15 at 18:55
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    Yeah, but “a million dollars” has long been used as an idiom for a large hypothetical amount of money. It's rarely adjusted for inflation, or for the exchange rate between US/Canadian/Australian/etc. dollars. Perhaps a better hyperbole would be a trillion dollars, approximately the combined wealth of the 7 richest people in the world.
    – dan04
    Oct 15 at 20:57
7

"I wouldn't do it for a million bucks" is an idiom.

"Bucks" is also slang for US dollars.

So it means, "even if I was offered a million dollars (or some other outrageously huge amount) to do it, I wouldn't."

It is used to emphasise that the person feels very strongly, that they would not do the stated thing. Even if they were offered a huge incentive, they would refuse.

Of course like most idioms, it is used to express feeling, and not literal. Someone might say, "I wouldn't talk back to my boss for a million dollars", where in fact, if literally offered it, they would. So it is to be taken more as a manner of speech, for emotional emphasis, not literal.

Examples:

"I wouldn't.....

  • go in that haunted house
  • cross that bridge
  • visit North Korea
  • sleep with (have sex with) some named person
  • buy a house in some place
  • use Windows (on a computer)
  • steal from someone
  • eat broccoli
  • walk naked in public
  • become an accountant

....for a million bucks."

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  • I must be dumb because I've slept with some named person, bought a house in some place, used Windows, eaten broccoli, and become an accountant, and I haven't yet got a million bucks. Oct 16 at 21:04
  • No.... ,you're just not that specific person who wouldn't :)
    – Stilez
    Oct 17 at 4:20
  • @MichaelHarvey you have to do all of the above Oct 17 at 11:05

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