What does the phrase “to rob Peter to pay Paul” mean and Where did it originate?

Speculation has been rife for centuries over the origin of the common saying “to rob Peter to pay Paul”; 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).”

The verbs have varied from time to time, depending upon the desired application. Thus we find that one has borrowed from or unclothed Peter to pay or to clothe Paul, but “rob” is the oldest English usage, so recorded in Wyclif’s Select English Works, written about 1380.

The thought has always been, to take something (usually money) that is needed for one purpose and use it for another.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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