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shameless pleading

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.

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