5 Commonly Used Financial Idioms and Their Origins
Did you ever wonder where the phrase “make money hand over fist” comes from? You probably know what it means intuitively, but if you break it down word for word, it just makes no sense.
Yet people use it every day on television, at work, and in casual conversation. We thought it would be fun to provide a little historical background to a few of these commonly used financial idioms.
1. Make money hand over fist
1. Make money hand over fist
We all know this phrase means making a lot of money over a short period of time. The phrase appears to be nautical in origin, referring to sailors climbing the ropes of sailing vessels to adjust the sails or get a better vantage point atop the mast.
The latter part of the idiom started off as “hand over hand.” In 1736, Captain Cooke wrote in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, “A lusty young Man attempted to go down (hand over hand, as the Workmen call it) by means of a sing Rope.”
In 1769, William Falconer made an entry in a universal dictionary of the marine, “Main avant, the order to pull on a rope hand-over-hand.”
What started off as “hand over hand” evolved into “hand over fist” because it more accurately described what physically occurred when sailors climbed the ship’s ropes.
When climbing the ropes, you initially grab the rope with an open hand and then make a fist to hold the rope and pull yourself forward. Then, with your other hand, you grab another part of the rope with an open hand and make a fist, and so on and so forth, until you reach your destination.
Describing this movement came to mean making steady progress as used by William Glascock in The Naval Sketchbook in 1825.
“The French…weathered our wake, coming up with us, ‘hand over fist’, in three divisions.”
The phrase arrived at its current meaning in 1833 with Seba Smith’s The life and writings of Major Jack Downing, “They…clawed the money off of his table, hand over fist.”
Another proposed origin claims that the phrase evolved somewhere between 1200 and 200 B.C., when coins were made using a mallet and a peg that had the coin design carved into one end.
With the peg held in the fist of one hand above the uncast coin, the mallet, held in the other hand, would then be hammered onto the peg, engraving the face on the coin, and literally making money hand over fist.
This is an interesting explanation for the source of the phrase, but is doubtful in my opinion. Idioms generally don’t have the staying power of 3,000 years.
The phrase “deadbeat” commonly refers to a freeloader who doesn’t pay their bills, avoiding their obligations and responsibilities.
This term may have its origin in horology, the science of measuring time. In clockmaking, a deadbeat is an anchor escapement invented by British clockmaker George Graham in 1715 to eliminate recoil in pendulum clocks.
When it was not functioning properly, sometimes it would make no movement whatsoever, thus becoming completely useless. From this circumstance, the term deadbeat was claimed.
In 1821, the phrase was used in Great Britain for something that was worn out or good for nothing, and in 1861 it was used to describe a pensioner.
In America, its use appears to have started during the Civil War. In Thomas Francis Gaway’s first-hand account of the Civil War titled The Valiant Hours he wrote,
“The really sick and habitual deadbeats, anxious to escape duty, are marched from each Company by a sergeant to the Surgeon.”
Published in 1881, the Dictionary of English Phrases and Illustrative Sentences was compiled by Kwang Ki-Chaou, a member of the Chinese Educational Mission in the United States. He gives us three definitions of deadbeat, “utterly exhausted,” “utterly done up,” and “a worthless idler who sponges on others.” It is the latter that has retained its current meaning and use.
3. The Bottom Line
“The bottom line” has its origins in accounting. The last line of the income statement is the net income, what the business earned or lost after deducting all of its expenses from its earnings.
The phrase still carries with it an accounting or financial meaning, but has grown to be used in many other settings, sometimes derisively.
When it is used with this negative tone, it generally means the speaker only cares about the end result and has no interest in the time and effort expended to achieve the result.
Its first literary use may have been in a 1967 article in the San Francisco Examiner about Governors George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, which read, “George Murphy and Ronald Reagan certainly qualified because they have gotten elected. I think that’s the bottom line,”
However, its real popularity as a common phrase started in the 1970’s, in Robert Townsend’s business management treatise titled Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profit. “All overheads should be brought down to the bottom line for bonus purposes on principles agreed to in advance.”
In 1971, Harper’s Bazaar described the new CEO of IBM, T. Vincent Learson, this way, “His only interest is in the in bottom line. He doesn’t know or care about books or art or music or even his own wife-only the bottom line.”
4. Make Ends Meet
The origin of this idiom is uncertain. One suggested origin is from the days of sailing ships.
The masts were attached to ropes, so if the rope broke, the mast would sag. By joining the rope together at the broken ends, the mast would become taut again.
Another suggested origin is that the phrase comes from another idiom that refers to tightening one’s belt.
During tough economic times, a generally portly person would have to live under a smaller budget, thus eating less to save money. The person would become thinner, enabling the two ends of his or her belt to meet.
The oldest example of this phrase in literature is found in Thomas Fuller’s 1661 The History of the Worthies of England. “Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring only to make both ends meet; and as for that little that lapped over he gave it to pious uses.”
In 1748, the way Tobias Smollet uses it in The Adventures of Roderick Random suggests a bookkeeping origin, “make both ends of the years meet,” meaning the ledger column recording income is hopefully equal to or more than the ledger column recording expenses.
5. Rain Check
The term rain check made its way into mainstream use from the early beginnings of professional baseball. Back in 1889, Abner Powell, a baseball player and team executive at the time, developed a ticket with a detachable stub that was called the rain check.
When the game was cancelled due to rain, a common occurrence back then as it is today, the rain check holder was entitled to see another game for free at a later date.
Prior to this, the rain check was likely some piece of paper given by a merchant at an outdoor bazaar or traveling peddler passing through town to a customer when a sudden heavy downpour interrupted their negotiations. The piece of paper carried with it a promise by the merchant to honor their agreement when they met again.
Today, the meaning of the rain check has not veered far from its origins. Baseball teams still give fans free entry to a later game when one is cancelled due to rain, and a receipt or slip of paper may be issued by a store entitling the holder to purchase a sold out sale item at the discounted price when additional inventory arrives.
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