MED Magazine - Issue 14 - December 2003

What we talk about when we talk about money
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on metaphor


A dictionary is far more than just a list of words in the language with their definitions and details of their accompanying grammatical behaviour. It is a vast repository of information about the culture and attitudes in the countries where that language is spoken. It is a snapshot of the way we see things and feel about things, of the images and metaphors which we use, consciously or unconsciously, when we talk about any subject in our lives. Examining and understanding, en masse, the body of vocabulary and phrases which relates to any given subject is a useful way to discover the ideas and attitudes embedded in the words we use. It is also an interesting and efficient way to expand and enrich one's vocabulary.

Unlike idioms, which generally allow very little freedom for variation or invention, metaphors can be adapted, built upon and played with, so long as the central idea remains intact. Once we have grasped the core ideas relating to a topic in English, we can start to use these to create our own metaphors using synonyms to make our language more fluent, inventive, poetic, or even amusing. These novel uses may even catch on and find their way into future editions of the dictionary.

This month we look at money. What do we talk about when we talk about money?

Using SmartSearch on the Macmillan English Dictionary CD-ROM to search for the word money and selecting headwords, phrases and definitions in the more search options box, we find no less than 1977 dictionary entries containing the word money. Already, this tells us that we are dealing with an important topic in the language, and one about which we have a lot to say.

Money is food

Money is referred to, informally, as dough, bread and lolly. All three of these informal or old-fashioned words for money have a primary meaning in the dictionary which denotes a foodstuff and a secondary, figurative meaning denoting money. In contrast, the money paid for a journey is referred to as fare, which also has the secondary, formal, meaning of food. Although the money sense of fare now precedes the food sense in the dictionary, because it is the more commonly used sense, the food sense did, in fact, predate the money sense by two centuries.

The wage earner goes to work to earn a crust or bring home the bacon and is called the breadwinner. Somebody who doesn't earn very much earns peanuts or chickenfeed and, as a result, has a lean time or does not have a bean. Something that provides your main income is your bread and butter. A good job or easy source of income is a gravy train or a meal ticket, a financial share in a lucrative deal or business is a slice of the cake, and if you are trying to get as much money as possible out of a situation, you are said to have your nose/snout in the trough. A large amount of money is described as fat or juicy. Money which you were not expecting to receive is called a windfall, which is also an apple or other fruit that has fallen from its tree.

The food metaphor is further extended when we talk about people spending money; people are said to fork out or ladle out money, or even to cough it up, as they would food. We also use the phrasal verb shell out, from the main verb to shell, which means 'to remove the outer cover of nuts, peas or other foods'. Savings are also described figuratively as food carefully set aside for the winter; people are said to squirrel away their money, or to salt it away, which uses the verb originally used to describe preserving meat or fish with salt. And when those savings are depleted, they are described, again, in terms also used for food, as being eaten into/up, gobbled up, or swallowed up.

Money is liquid

This is also a very deeply entrenched metaphor. We talk about liquid assets, liquidity, liquidation etc. and about cash flow or outflow. Even the word for the system of money in a country, currency, comes via Old French from the Latin verb currere, meaning 'to run', and is related to the noun current, which is something which flows, like a river.

Somebody who is without debt is described as solvent. The verb solve came originally from the Latin verb solvere, meaning 'to release, unbind, or pay' and was connected with the idea of releasing someone from debt. This gave rise to the extended, metaphorical meaning relating to loosening, or turning a solid into a liquid, giving rise to the noun solvent. Somebody who is rich is described as affluent. This metaphorical sense has only been in use since the 18th century and the adjective originally meant 'flowing', having come via Old French from the Latin verb affluere, which was also the source of the noun fluid. Somebody who feels rich feels flush, which also comes from the Latin verb fluere, meaning 'to flow'.

Spending money is like moving a liquid

When somebody invests money in something, they prime the pump or pour, pump, sink or inject money into it. If they decide to stop investing money in something or stop supporting something financially, especially if it is proving to be a drain on them, they can pull the plug on it. They can also channel or funnel money into something or siphon, skim or cream it off from one place to another. When they waste money they spend money like water, throw it down the drain or piddle it away. They might also tap someone for money, and, (in American English) something which uses up all of someone's money can tap them out. If they go on a spending spree, they might splash out or just dip into their savings. If they are rich, they might say they have a lot of money sloshing around. They might be able to give someone a top-up — giving them a little money as though they were replenishing their drink.

Expenses are absorbent

An expensive outlay is said to absorb or soak up a large part of your income. A person who prefers to spend your money instead of their own sponges off you, soaking up your money like a sponge. Eventually, your funds will run dry or dry up and your other assets will be frozen (so that they are not liquid any more and can no longer flow).

Debts are liquid too!

There are some surprising contradictions in the world of metaphor and this would seem to be one of them. We have seen that money is talked about using the same words as we use to talk about liquid. We have also seen that when there is no money left, it is said to have dried up or run dry. It seems surprising, then, that somebody who is in debt is often described using the same language we use to talk about drowning. A person with financial problems is said to be in over their head, deep in debt or struggling to keep their head above water. The second, figurative, meaning in the dictionary of the phrasal verb to go under refers to businesses failing; its first meaning is 'to sink below the surface of the water'. And if somebody is in financial trouble, we talk about bailing them out, which continues the imagery of a person being surrounded by too much water, but this time the water is their debt.

In view of the money is liquid metaphor, I would have expected the situation of being in debt to be described using words relating to deserts and dryness. Perhaps the reason why this is not the case, is that the dryness metaphor was already taken, being used to talk about boredom and things that are boring?

The metaphors and expressions listed above are all taken from the Macmillan English Dictionary and are not intended as a comprehensive list. We would be pleased to hear from any reader who can suggest any other money metaphors in English which are not covered here.

Further reading

The Language of Metaphors, Andrew Goatly (Routledge, 1997)
Metaphors We Live By, G. Lakoff and M. Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1980)
Dictionary of Word Origins, John Ayto (Bloomsbury, 2001)

Next in the series

Next month, we will take a look at what we talk about when we talk about illness.

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