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shameless pleading

Pin money

 Something found on internet actually true, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: Recently I read an explanation of the origin of the term “pin money” on a Facebook page. Included in the explanation was a “fact” that way back whenever, pins were only sold on two days of the year (January 1st and 2nd). This sounds pretty ridiculous so I await confirmation (or not) from you. — Shelley Thomas.

Thanks for a neat question. All of a sudden I feel like I’m back in 1996, when nearly every question I received came with a colorful story involving the inexplicable behavior of people, as you put it so well, “way back whenever.” And it just dawned on me that Facebook is, among other things, the new America Online, i.e., the prime vector for urban legends and silly stories about language. Makes perfect sense.

In this case, however, the story that is making the rounds on Facebook is, as weird as it sounds, largely true. The Reverend Dr. E. Cobham Brewer, author of the original Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1870, included an entry on “pin money” which read: “Long after the invention of pins, in the fourteenth century, the maker was allowed to sell them in open shop only on January 1st and 2nd. It was then that the court ladies and city dames flocked to the depots to buy them, having been first provided with money by their husbands. When pins became cheap and common, the ladies spent their allowances on other fancies, but the term pin money remained in vogue.” Brewer had an unfortunate tendency to repeat fables, but in this case he was on solid ground. Apparently, pins were sufficiently expensive and in such short supply in the 14th century that Parliament actually passed a special law that indeed restricted their sale to the first two days of January each year.

In fact, until mass production in the 19th and 20th centuries, the common straight “pin” (from the Latin “pinna,” feather, specifically its sharp point) was much more expensive than it is today, and more useful in the typical household where clothing and cloth furnishings were more apt to be sewn than bought. It is also true that from the 16th century on, husbands were expected to give their wives an allowance (referred to as “pin money”), usually a substantial amount, with which to buy clothing and manage the household. The amount and terms of the “pin money” were often written into the marriage contract, and the legal status of “pin money” was codified in English law. Such “pin money” was often the only actual cash the wife received from her husband, was considered her personal property, and served as a sort of safety net at a time when women had few legal rights. There were even legal cases where, upon the death of the husband or dissolution of the marriage, the wife was awarded “pin money” that she was owed (“On difference between him and his lady about settlement of 200 l. per annum, pin-mony in case of separation, she upon affidavit of hard usage, and that she went in fear of her life, prayed security of the peace against him, which was granted,” 1674).

“Pin money” was never intended to be spent entirely on pins, no matter how expensive they might have been; the term was simply verbal shorthand for “household allowance.” What’s interesting about the term “pin money” is that it originally meant a hefty chunk of change. But with the dramatic fall in the price of pins, a literal interpretation led to “pin money” becoming synonymous with “a trivial amount of money” or “petty cash” (“If you did find yourself short of pin money you … could get yourself a job,” 1978). Of course, one person’s “pin money” can be another’s daily bread, as many artists and writers know all too well (“The late Rose Terry Cooke, popular as her writings were, never made more than pin money with her pen,” 1892).

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