The Origins of 7 Idioms About Money & Finance

Thursday, October 63 min read

Money makes the world go ‘round, and there’s a whole lexicon to go along with it. But instead of talking about interest rates and amortization, we’re learning about the idioms, metaphors, and slang of the finance world. Some investors are thrilled to find a cash cow that generates steady profits. In contrast, others toil away as breadwinners, providing the primary source of income for their families. Let’s learn about what cows, bread, bacon, and peanuts have to do with the almighty dollar.

Born with a Silver Spoon in Your Mouth

Children born into homes of wealth, luxury, and privilege are said to be “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” While the babies usually don’t literally eat from silver utensils, the saying is pretty self explanatory, as wealthy households historically had expensive silver place settings.

The English idiom appeared in print as early as 1719, in a translation of the 1605 Spanish novel, “The History of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha.” In the original text, Sancho uses a Spanish proverb with hanging hams as the metaphor, but the translator mixed a few precious metals for the English version: “’Tis not all Gold that glifters (sic), and every Man was not born with a Silver Spoon in his Mouth.”

Bringing Home the Bacon

How did a pork product come to be associated with earning a steady income? As with most idioms, there are a few possible origin stories. In the 1100s in the little town of Great Dunmow in Essex, England, married couples could earn a side of bacon by visiting the church and swearing to the clergy that they hadn’t argued in the last year. Eight centuries later, boxer Joe Gans received a telegram from his mother encouraging him to “bring home the bacon” in a 1906 fight. It’s likely the bacon metaphor was commonly used over those centuries as a stand-in for a hard-won prize, and Gans’ mother is not credited as the inventor of the phrase, but the publicity made the stand-in phrase for a paycheck stick.

The Big Bucks

In America, a “buck” is slang for “one dollar,” so, anyone earning “the big bucks” is getting a whole lot of money. The term “buck” dates to the 1800s when deerskins (also known as buckskins) were commonly traded for goods and services. Folks can also earn an “honest buck,” make a “quick buck,” or get “more bang for their buck.”

Money Doesn't Grow on Trees

This adage, a favorite of dads everywhere, has roots going back centuries. The message is clear — be smart with your money because it’s a limited resource — but the phrase has been used with objects of value other than money. A 1669 book of proverbs promised: “Minc'd Pyes do not grow upon every tree, But search the Ovens for them, and there they be.” The line “Clothes don't grow upon trees in ould Ireland” was found in an 1833 novel, Peter Simple. In a 1965 children’s book, Black Hearts in Battersea, Joan Aiken wrote, “Sausages don't grow on trees in London.” The moral of the story is, no matter what valuable items are at stake, they’re not growing on trees.

Strike It Rich

If someone “strikes it rich,” it means they’ve suddenly become wealthy. This expression comes from 19th-century miners seeking their fortunes in minerals or oil — gold, silver, copper, and oil are the kinds of valuable materials one could “strike” when digging in the ground, but today it might mean a big lottery win, or a fortuitous investment.

To Pay Peanuts

“Peanuts” are synonymous with “very little money.” The origin of this phrase seems to have a few branches. It could come from a sense of peanut farmers paying farm hands for a day’s work with a share of the crop. It could also come from the idea of selling peanuts and other concessions at baseball games, again either for a share of the peanuts themselves or just a small amount of money. The sense of the word “peanut” meaning a very small amount of anything has been in use since at least the mid-19th century.

A Penny Saved Is a Penny Earned

Some folks are spenders, some are savers, and this saying exists to praise the latter. According to this idiom, when someone saves a penny, that’s just as good as earning a cent. This phrase is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, and while a version of it did appear in his 1737 Poor Richard’s Almanac, the sentiment predates Franklin by about a century. A poet named George Herbert wrote, “a penny spar’d is twice got” in a 1640 collection of poems and proverbs.

Featured image credit: Brooks Kraft LLC/ Sygma via Getty Images

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