Money Idioms and Where They Come From - Live Like a Mensch
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Money Idioms and Where They Come From


Photo courtesy of Astanhope, who apparently has found money growing on trees. Or at least on flowers.

This morning, as I was running my usual four miles and listening to my newest cheesy romance novel audiobook (Temptation by Nora Roberts), I had a profound revelation about an idiom I have been hearing and using my entire life. Because Ms. Roberts is nothing if not subtle (and really, Nora, please know that I love you and your writing has provided me with hours of guilty pleasure, so forgive my snark!), the book entitled Temptation features a heroine named Eden who has a meet cute with her bashert when he discovers her helping herself to an apple from his orchard and she then falls into his arms when attempting to extricate herself from the apple tree. He then tells her that she is a wonderful windfall.

And that was when I had my profound revelation. I think of a windfall entirely in money terms--the $5000 inheritance you weren't expecting or the tax refund check you were expecting, but still came all at once in a lovely, large check. With my mind on apples and the ridiculously named hero (Chase Elliott), I had a sudden vision of what a boon it must be for fruit harvesters to find that the wind has caused their crop to fall to ground, where it will be much easier to gather.

This is probably not nearly as profound a revelation to others as it was to me, but I do always enjoy figuring out the origins of idioms once their original meaning is secondary at best. (Just for fun, ask someone under the age of 18 why we "dial" a phone. It'll either be entertaining or make you feel incredibly old.) So I decided to look up where several different money idioms came from in the hopes that I'll better understand the metaphors of yesteryear. Here's what I found:

Cash on the barrelhead. Definition: "Immediate payment, as in They won't extend credit; it's cash on the barrelhead or no sale."

Origin: "The lexicographer Charles Earle Funk surmised that this term originated in the days when upended barrels served as both seats and tables in bars, and customers were required to pay for their drinks immediately, literally putting their money on the top (head) of a barrel." (Definition and origin thanks to dictionary.com).

To be worth one's salt. Definition: "To be effective and efficient; deserving of one's pay."

Origin: "Sodium chloride, a.k.a. salt, is essential for human life and, until the invention of canning and refrigeration, was the primary method of preservation of food. Not surprisingly, it has long been considered valuable. Our word salary derives from the Latin salarium, (sal is the Latin word for salt). There is some debate over the origin of the word salarium, but most scholars accept that it was the money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt. Roman soldiers weren't actually paid in salt, as some suggest. They were obliged to buy their own food, weapons etc. and had the cost of these deducted from their wages in advance." (Definition and origin thanks to The Phrase Finder.)

Going Dutch. Defintion: "this is a term that indicates that each person participating in a group activity pays for himself, rather than any person paying for anyone else, particularly in a restaurant bill."

Possible origin: "One suggestion is that the phrase "going Dutch" originates from the concept of a Dutch door. Previously on farmhouses this consisted of two equal parts (Sullivan 2010). Another school of thought is that it may be related to Dutch etiquette. In the Netherlands, it was not unusual to pay separately when going out as a group." (Definition and possible origins thanks to Wikipedia).

Pony up. Definition: "Pay money, especially a payment that is in arrears."

Possible origin: "The English quarter day of March 25th was the day that debts were settled and payments were made. The first two words of the fifth division of Psalm 119, which was always sung at Matins on the 25th day of the month, are 'Legem pone'. The term became associated with the payment of debts and was used as an allusive expression for 'payment of money; cash down'. That meaning of 'legem pone' was recorded as early as 1570 by Thomas Tusser in Hundreth Good Pointes Husbandry:

Use Legem pone to pay at thy day."

(Definition and possible origin thanks to The Phrase Finder).

Pay through the nose. Definition: "To pay a high price; to pay dearly."

Origin: "Comes from the ninth-century Ireland. When the Danes conquered the Irish, they imposed an exorbitant Nose Tax on the island's inhabitants. They took a census (by counting noses) and levied oppressive sums on their victims, forcing them to pay by threatening to have their noses actually slit. Paying the tax was 'paying through the nose.'" (Definition and possible origin [because experts apparently disagree!] thanks to Neatorama).

High on the hog. Definition: "Affluent and luxurious."

Origin: "The source of this phrase is often said to be the fact that the best cuts of meat on a pig come from the back and upper leg and that the wealthy ate cuts from 'high on the hog', while the paupers ate belly pork and trotters." (Definition and origin thanks to The Phrase Finder).


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