Robbing Peter to pay Paul

I would gladly pay you Tuesday.

Dear Word Detective:  Having been at the periphery of the business world for over 30 years, I’m well-acquainted with the technique of funding one project at the expense of another: “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Where did the phrase come from? Was Peter a banker and Paul a bookie? (Hey, I can hope…) — Steve Ford.

Um, no, we’re talking saints here, which rules out both those professions (although most bookies don’t have to worry about that camel-needle thing, which puts them a few rungs up, in my degenerate opinion). I’m heartened to see that bookies still exist in our brave networked world; the thought of a bookie sitting by the phone in a smoke-filled room is charmingly Runyonesque. The French call this sort of thing “nostalgie de la boue” (nostalgia for the gutter), and I plead guilty. I also miss Times Square before it became Disneyfied. Oh well…

“Robbing Peter to pay Paul” is indeed a mainstay of our economic system, especially these days, when we focus less on actually making grubby old things and more on manipulating debt. Much of the corporate-takeover fever of the late 20th century, in fact, took the form of “leveraged buy-outs,” where outsiders would borrow money in order to buy a company, which was then often broken up and sold off piecemeal to repay the debt. In that arrangement the bankers were Paul, and Peter, often thousands of Peters, were robbed of a job.

The Peter and Paul of the phrase are indeed the Apostles of Jesus, Peter (aka Simon Peter) and Paul (originally Saul of Tarsus). “Rob Peter to pay Paul” as an English idiom is very old, and its exact origin is unclear. Christine Ammer, in her excellent dictionary of cliches “Have a Nice Day; No Problem!”, mentions one theory that traces it to the 1540 conversion of Saint Peter’s church in London into a cathedral. The story goes that when St. Peter’s was integrated into the diocese of London ten years later, much of its resources were appropriated to finance the restoration of St. Paul’s cathedral, thus “robbing” St. Peter’s to “pay” St. Paul’s. If this theory strikes you as overly elaborate and unlikely, I have good news. It’s also impossible, because “to rob Peter to pay Paul” is found in the writings of John Wycliff, philosopher, theologian and creator of Wycliff’s Bible, around 1382, roughly 150 years before St. Paul’s makeover.

In all likelihood, the connection between “to rob Peter to pay Paul” and the Apostles Peter and Paul goes no further than conveniently invoking two very well-known names that are attractively alliterative. Another passage, this one from around 1400, reads “Some medicine is for Peter but is not good for Paul.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to go looking for something about head colds in the New Testament.

2 comments on this post.
  1. Victoria:

    Saints Peter and Paul not only alliterate but also share a feast day (29 June). As a result, many churches were and are dedicated to both of them (because if your church were only dedicated to one of them you’d still have to include the other in your annual patronal feast). So medieval English people would always have experienced them as an almost inseparable pair.

  2. James Richardson:

    I am quite sure I have found the original use of the term referring to “taking from Peter to give to Paul”. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Apostles Peter and Paul or with Christianity. The line was however written early in the Christian era.
    I love reading Roman history and recently while reading the letters of Pliny the Younger I came across his letter to his friend Geminus. The letter was written regarding another friend of theirs, Nonius, and was about Nonius’s generosity to certain people. In the letter Pliny writes…”Similarly crafty are men who take from Peter what they give to Paul, seeking a reputation for generosity by resort to avarice”…..It is a relatively short letter and can be found in Oxford World’s Classics, Pliny the Younger Complete Letters, translation by P.G. Walsh, Book Nine, No. 30. To His Friend Geminus. This was written by Pliny in the First Century. He was the Governor of Bithynia who wrote to the Emperor Trajan requesting guidance on how to deal with Christians. At the time he wrote Christianity was a new sect in the Roman Empire and it is extremely doubtful if Pliny knew anything at all about either of the Apostles in such a way as to reference them in a letter to a friend. In any case this takes the expression back to 2000 years ago.

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