Well, here in the North Country, it was just recently property tax time … and the phrase “Rob Peter to pay Paul” just seemed to come up … coincidence or no?
So, I wondered where this phrase originated. It’s one of those sayings we use or say on a daily basis, without really knowing where the phrase came from, or maybe even what it really means.
And, really, why was it “Peter” and “Paul?” The (perhaps?) apostolic undertones could not be ignored.
I mean, why not “rob Tom to pay Jerry?” Or, any other two names “randomly” thrown in. I thought, perhaps, maybe it was not “random” at all, the choice of the names Peter and Paul. And, why was Peter the one robbed, rather than Paul?
Let’s face it: If Paul knew the source of such gain, he would not accept it, anyway. So, in light of especially that realization, where did the phrase originate, and what did it really mean-when it was first used? As a writer, and a teacher, the meaning of words, and their origin, are important to me.
That’s what I did: “THE SEARCH” for “Where did the phrase ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ come from?”
And, just to gain the potential ire of purists, the first source I used was “wiktionary.org.”
It had the answer that was the most common among all of the sources I researched:
It only strikes me now that, yes, the first time the phrase was used, had to do with paying taxes:
The expression refers to times before the Reformation when Church taxes had to be paid to St. Paul’s church in London and to St. Peter’s church in Rome; originally it referred to neglecting the Peter tax in order to have money to pay the Paul tax.
to rob Peter to pay Paul
(idiomatic) To use resources that legitimately belong to or are needed by one party in order to satisfy a legitimate need of another party, especially within the same organization or group; to solve a problem in a way that makes another problem worse, producing no net gain.
An Idiom? I turned to “yourdictionary.com,” (“idioms column), where I discovered something new, something that I also discovered about the phrase, shared by other sources, which involved John Wycliffe:
What does “rob Peter to pay Paul” mean?
Take from one to give to another, shift resources. For example, They took out a second mortgage on their house so they could buy a condo in Florida—they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. Although legend has it that this expression alludes to appropriating the estates of St. Peter’s Church, in Westminster, London, to pay for the repairs of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the 1800s, the saying first appeared in a work by John Wycliffe about 1382.
I found this bit of new information to be most amazing, especially as the proprietor of a Christian bookstore … so I turned to “amazingfactsworld.com,” which only mentioned the church tax as the origination:
What Does the Expression “Rob Peter to Pay Paul” Mean and Where Did the Idiom Come From?
In the mid-1700s the ancient London Cathedral of St. Paul’s was falling apart.
The strain on the treasury was so great that it was decided that it would merge with the diocese of the newer St. Peter’s Cathedral in order to absorb and use their funds to repair the crumbling St. Paul’s.
The parishioners of St. Peter’s resented this and came up with the rallying cry, they’re “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The expression is often used to refer to a bad deal.
But, no mention of John Wycliffe on this source … I needed answers … so, I turned to “answersyahoo.com”:
Where does this saying come from? Robbing Peter to pay Paul?
Take from one to give to another, shift resources. Although legend has it that this expression alludes to appropriating the estates of St. Peter’s Church, in Westminster, London, to pay for the repairs of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the 1800s, the saying first appeared in a work by John Wycliffe about 1382.
“The expression ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ goes back at least to John Wycliffe’s ‘Select English Works,’ written in about 1380. Equally old in French, the saying may derive from a 12th-century Latin expression referring to the Apostles: ‘As it were that one would crucify Paul in order to redeem Peter.’ The words usually mean to take money for one thing and use it for another, especially in paying off debts,” according to the “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson.
I thought this was an excellent explanation … but then, I still wasn’t sure if there may be more to why the names “Peter” and “Paul” were chosen, and the phrase has lasted so long:
Maybe, I should turn to a British resource. So, I did. I went to “The Phrase Finder” over at
“phrases.org.uk. They had quite a lot of information, and included why these particular 2 names were chosen:
Phrase Dictionary – Meanings and Origins > Rob Peter to pay Paul
There’s a text, first published in 1661, that purports to explain the origin of this expression – Peter Heylyn’s Ecclesia Restaurata:
The lands of Westminster so dilapidated by Bishop Thirlby, that there was almost nothing left to support the dignity; for which good service he had been preferred to the see of Norwich, in the year foregoing. Most of the lands invaded by the great men of the court, the rest laid out for reparation to the church of St Paul – pared almost to the very quick in those days of rapine. From hence first came that significant by-word (as is said by some) of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
A 350 year-old text claiming to explain the origin of a phrase is usually almost as good as a smoking gun for etymologists. Regrettably, Heylyn’s understanding was flawed; the phrase was known long before 1661 and even before the birth of the 16th century cleric Thomas Thirlby. The ecclesiastical tome Jacob’s well: an English treatise on the cleansing of man’s conscience, circa 1450, includes the phrase in it’s original form:
To robbe Petyr & geve it Poule, it were non almesse but gret synne.
The expression may be even earlier than 1450. John Wyclif’s Selected English Works contains this text:
Lord, hou schulde God approve that you robbe Petur and gif is robbere to Poule in ye name of Crist?
There is however, some dispute as to the date of the above. It is reprinted in a Victorian book but the original is now lost. If it does indeed arise from Wyclif the date would be 1380. Others have speculated that a more realistic date is around 1500.
The expression was well enough established in English for it to have been considered proverbial by John Heywood when he published A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue in 1546:
Rob Peter and pay Paul: thou sayest I do;
But thou robbest and poulst Peter and Paul too
The phrase was also in use in other European countries and was known in France by at least 1611, when Cotgrave produced A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues:
Découvrir Saint Pierre pour couvrir Saint Paul [Strip Peter to clothe Paul]
The precise date is not the only aspect of this phrase that is somewhat uncertain. Scholars also disagree as to the thinking of whoever coined it. Given that any two names would work in a ‘rob X to pay Y’ proverb, why choose Peter and Paul? It has been suggested that the primary reason for Peter and Paul is the alliteration, i.e. the same reason that Jack was paired with Jill when they went up the hill. That may well be part of the story, but there’s surely more to it. The similarities between Saint Peter and Saint Paul go deeper than their sharing of the letter P.
The expression was coined at a time when almost all English people were Christian and they would have been well used to hearing Peter and Paul paired together. They were both apostles of Christ, both martyred in Rome and shared the Feast Day on 29th June. This commemoration now passes by with little mention, but not so in mediaeval England. The essence of the meaning of ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ is the pointlessness of taking from one only to give to another who was similar. There are many churches of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in England and throughout Europe. It may not be the case that, as Peter Heylyn asserted, that the phrase arose from the borrowing of money from one church to fund another, but from the familiarity of the notion of Peter and Paul being alike and inseparable.
I really learned a lot from this source, and most of it I almost completely understood.
So, I hope this clears up the question for you. There were a lot of “back and forth” discussion websites which featured answers, but I chose the best 5 which I found.
Here are the links to the sources, which may be a great resource for your future searches for other phrases and work origins:
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