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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).

8 comments to Pin money

  • Tina

    Cool. Just heard the term in a documentary and came here. Thanks for the explanation. I never would have thought that 2 day pin sales point was true either.

  • MaughamsBoy

    I’m wholly satisfied with the explanation above, but as someone that’s fascinated by etymology (and therefore the fact that two or more quite different origins can coexist and ultimately serve to usher the expression into more common parlance), I have an alternative position. It seems to me that another rational explanation for the term has to do with the common (almost universal in the UK) practice of keeping pound notes strung together on a safety pin. To be sure, the period mentioned above (regarding pin purchasing), would’ve seen much more coin-carrying than note-carrying, however there’s still a very significant chunk of history when ‘walking around money’ would have involved currency notes strung together on a pin. I have to imagine that such a practice would’ve only further reinforced the usage of the expression as a figure of speech meant to describe a sum of money that was modest enough to be carried about (as opposed to being kept in a bank)–particularly given the English cultural affection for wordplay…

  • MiTmite9

    Dear Word Detective: Only comment I have is re: Semper ubi sub ubi. The first time I saw that phrase was on a bathroom wall about 30 years ago. Having taken Latin in Jr. High School in the late 60s, when I read those four words, I nearly laughed myself sick. I am curious as to why you have them linked to your name.

  • valerie jewell

    The way this term was taught to me by my grandmother, who was born in 1887, was that a father gave his daughter “pin money” to catch a ride home, if her “date” wasn’t going well.
    the money was pinned in her brassiere…..

    • Amy

      The same explanation was given to me in 1959. But carfare is paid at the destination. And a scoundrel taking liberties might be encouraged, thinking it was intended for him.

  • Brooke Nixon

    Just wanted to add that pins have historically been used in Europe to fasten clothing while worn. It wasn’t just that home sewing was more important, it was that they were used where we might use buttons or zippers, today. They were an accessory of dress, like gloves or a fan, only even more necessary.

  • Kate

    This is one of my favorite terms, as my mother and grandmother used to use it to refer money set aside from doing extra work, or set aside from being frugal, like the coin jar, or when we could buy something with S&H green stamps instead of having to pay cash. If we saved on electricity, or my mom negotiated a better heating oil price, or we had casseroles for a week to save on the food budget – that was all pin money.

    My grandmother, who raised & supported her four children through the Crash and the Depression, told me that pin money was the extra money she earned by mending, knitting, and sewing on the side. Her mother, my great-grandmother, used to keep the coins from “pinning” in her sewing/knitting basket. My family was far from being able to afford fancy pins, and given the frugal connotation of the term, perhaps like many things, New Englanders adopted the term for their own use.

  • Edward Bear

    It wasn’t just for pins, in the same way that English “tea” is not just the beverage. It’s an example of using an item in a common list to represent the list. I think it is considered “definition drift” or something similar.

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