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Say What: (Don't) rob Peter to pay Paul. / (The) writing on the wall.

Today's installment of "Say What?" will look at two phrases that have a common basis in Christianity and taking responsibility for your misdeeds. You've probably heard both but may not know what they mean. So let's find out together with the help of our friends over at Once Upon a Time, shall we?

(Don't) rob Peter to pay Paul.

The Phrase Finder has one of the more comprehensive listings of this phrase. The undisputed first appearance is from the 1661 Ecclesia Restaurata by Peter Heylyn. Going back farther than this is where the speculation begins, with sources reaching as far as 1380 in John Wyclif's Selected English Works as Lord, hou schulde God approve that you robbe Petur and gif is robbere to Poule in ye name of Crist?. Per Phrase Finder, this original novel apparently no longer exists, but was mentioned elsewhere in a Victorian novel.

In attempting to answer this question, John Fenzel quoted Charles Earle Funk's A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions,The Origin and Development of the Pungent & Colorful Phrases We All Use with the following:

Speculation has been rife for centuries over the origin of this common saying; every avenue has apparently been explored, but the original allusion is still a mystery. In English it dates back at least to the fourteenth century; the French have a similar saying at least as old, and there is, in Latin, a twelfth-century phrase, "Tanquam si quis Crucifigeret Paulum ut redimeret Petrum, (As it were that one would crucify Paul in order to redeem Peter).
[Bolding is my own.]

This led to further research, via Wiktionary, that pointed to a more probable definition that fits our modern day usage:

The expression refers to times before the Reformation when Church taxes had to be paid from 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.

While the exact history of this phrase is disputed, the basic meaning remains the same: paying for one debt by creating another. This phrase tends to get used a lot when describing Ponzi schemes, as well as for people who can't afford to repay two different debts, so borrow from the funds of one to pay the other.

"So tell me, Madam Mayor, how do you plan to cover the costs of the new playground? Planning to rob Peter to pay Paul?"

"Yes, Sheriff Swan," Regina said with a sneer. "You've figured me out! I'll just take it out of the Sheriff's Station budget. Guess you won't be getting that raise after all."


(The) writing on the wall

In a nutshell, this phrase warns of impending doom for one's actions, the results of one's act(s) of hubris. It comes from the biblical story of the downfall of Belshazzar's empire in Babylon after he insulted God by using sacred religious vessels for his pagan feast. This brought about disembodied writing on the wall that no one could decipher but Daniel, who advised that Belshazzar would lose his empire to the Medes and the Persians. Belshazzar was killed that night and Darius took over his kingdom and his rule. This situation was related to an earlier situation of blasphemy by Belshazzar's father, Nebuchadnezzar. The difference is that Nebuchadnezzar repented for his sins and was found worthy again, while Belshazzar was not and was killed.

This biblical story also gives us the basis of the two other phrases this concept can be known for: "the handwriting's on the wall" and "mene mene". The former is because of the ghostly hand that appeared to actually write the words on the wall. The latter is part of the phrase that was written, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin", which was translated by Daniel to "Numbered, Weighed, Divided". In other words, Belshazzar's days were numbered because of the weight of his transgressions and his kingdom would be divided.

"You just don't get it, do you, dearie?" Gold asked, offering her a familiar, demented smile. "The writing's on the wall for you and your beloved curse. The Savior's coming and she'll make sure you get just what you deserve."

The writing appears on the wall as a warning of wrongdoing, but the person doing the misdeeds is too caught up in said wrongdoing to realize the trouble (s)he is really in.





"(Don't) rob Peter to pay Paul" Resources:
"(The) writing on the wall" Resources:
Tags: !say what, author:ariestess, language:colloquial, usage
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