Robbing Peter

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the phrase robbing Peter to pay Paul, which is generally considered to mean paying one debt by incurring another. Imagine paying your MasterCard bill with your Visa card, or by taking out a loan.

This expression has been around for a long time (in English and other languages). Some claim that the phrase comes from a text published in 1661, the Ecclesia Restaurata. The website The Phrase Finder, suggests that it’s first published usage is from the “ecclesiastical tome Jacob’s Well: An English Treatise on the Cleansing of Man’s Conscience, circa 1450.” As published in Jacob’s Well, the phrase is “To robbe Petyr & geve it Poule, it were non almesse but gret synne.”

Other sources state that the term came to be in 16th Century England, when part of the estate of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Westminster was appropriated to pay for repairs to Saint Paul’s in London.

Some believe the metaphor arose during the period before the Reformation when Church taxes had to be paid to St. Paul’s church in London and St. Peter’s church in Rome. In this usage, robbing Peter to pay Paul meant neglecting the St. Peter’s tax in order to make payment to St. Paul’s church.

For the final word on the origins of this expression, let’s return to the The Phrase Finder. “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. It may not be the case 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.”

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