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shameless pleading

Money pit

Does a gold-plated water heater count?

Dear Word Detective: I was watching a program all about the Templars and how they have hidden treasure everywhere, started the banking system in Switzerland and probably are really responsible for killing the dinosaurs. At one part the program was talking about a pit in Nova Scotia that many groups tried to excavate to find hidden treasure. A shot of an old newspaper headline said something like “Many groups invest in money pit.” This made me wonder if the phrase “money pit” — a phrase you seem to live with every day — came from this excavation. — KT Kamp.

Oh, Templars, schemplars, I say. Bosh, balderdash, hokum and hooey. As I noted in a recent column, my brother-in-law is a Knight Templar, and he couldn’t find ice in Antarctica with Google Maps and a flashlight. I suppose that if Big Macs ever go extinct, he’ll be a logical suspect, but the producers of that program were definitely barking up the wrong ancient secret order. The Girl Scouts are the ones who control everything, and no one suspects them because those infernal cookies are the Blue Pill. I’ll wait here while you go look that up on Wikipedia.

The pit that the program mentioned is on Oak Island, off Nova Scotia in Canada. I first read of the Oak Island “money pit” mystery when I was about twelve years old, and it made such an impression on me that I resolved to someday go there myself and investigate. (Hey, I’ve been busy.) The Wikipedia entry for “Oak Island” is probably the easiest way to get up to speed on the history of the mystery, although it lacks the whoo-hoo atmospherics that entranced me when I was twelve. Long story short, back in the 18th century a 16-year old boy found a tree on the island from which dangled an old hoisting apparatus above a depression in the ground. He and his friends started digging and discovered a very elaborate system of layers, tunnels and barriers that many people since have suspected was designed to protect some kind of buried treasure, most likely pirates’ booty hidden by either Captain Kidd or Blackbeard. Several attempts, some quite elaborate, have been made to excavate the “money pit” (as it came to be known) over the years, but no one has yet succeeded.

The phrase “money pit,” although it came to be associated with the Oak Island mystery, was apparently already in more general use meaning “a pit dug (or suspected to have been dug) to hide treasure or money” (“In many places … we found money-pits dug; and, in one place, they told us, that a man bought of a poor widow, the right of digging on her ground for hidden treasure,” 1820). The phrase as eventually applied to Oak Island was a nifty double entendre: the pit was believed to contain millions of dollars in treasure, but several fortunes were spent on fruitless attempts to find the loot.

That sense of “a fruitless project that consumes money as surely as throwing it into a pit” produced, in the 1980s, the modern use of “money pit” to mean a house, usually old (such as ours), which turns out to need constant and ruinously expensive repairs with no end in sight. (In our case, it has meant a new roof, new furnace, new water heaters (2), well pumps (2) and dozens of small repairs. It’s gotten to the point that toasters break before we even plug them in.) This use of the phrase was popularized by a Tom Hanks movie called “The Money Pit” (actually a remake of the classic and far superior 1948 “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”) in 1986. The phrase “money pit” is also often used in a broader sense to mean any enterprise or project that devours piles of resources with no real results (“Such a database is a true money pit, and finding consumers willing to shovel in the money to fill it is a formidable task,” 1986).

So “money pit” was in use before it was applied to Oak Island, but the fame of that mystery and the fortunes wasted on trying to solve it gave us the modern uses of the phrase.

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