Bringing Home the Bacon: The Origin of Popular Finance Sayings


You’ve heard them a thousand times: Cliches related to money and finance that have been uttered so often their meanings have become, well, meaningless.

However, if you stop to consider the etymology behind the sayings, you might discover why these famous words became so popular in the first place. Not every one has a concrete history behind it, but here’s our best explanation of how these popular finance sayings originated:

Keeping Up with the Joneses

keeping up with the jonesesThis phrase is used to describe people who are compelled to compete with others financially. Keeping up with the Joneses has come to mean maintaining your economic superiority among peers. It’s spending every penny you have on the latest and greatest in material possessions.

The Joneses were a fictional couple often mentioned in an early 20th century comic strip by Arthur R. “Pops” Momad that was featured in Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, The New York World. They have since come to represent an ideal family with everything a good American consumerist could want–the car, the television, the perfect single family home in suburbia. Though they were often the object of envy in the story, however, they weren’t really the focus of the strip itself.

As Good as Gold

The phrase “as good as gold” is most often used to describe something or someone as genuine. So how did gold become synonymous with authenticity?

It’s believed it has to do with the nature of original banknotes. Before paper money existed in its present form, monetary value of paper currency was originally represented by a banknote, which simply stated you promised to pay the designated amount in coins.

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It was the metal money that actually held intrinsic value, though. Thus, gold could be considered the most reliable, or genuine, of all currency.

Bringing Home the Bacon

If you are bringing home the bacon, you’re living well. It usually means to pull in a big paycheck, but in the simplest sense, to experience good fortune and wealth.

This phrase’s origin is harder to nail down, but there are two theories that stand out among the rest:

The first theory is that it derived from a tradition called Dunmow Flitch that is still practiced every four years in Great Dunmow, Essex. In 1104, the Prior of Little Dunmow was so impressed with a couple’s devotion to each other that he gave them a side of bacon (also called a flitch). There is no solid proof if this is true, however.

The first time anyone had actually been quoted as using this phrase was in 1906, when Joe Gans won a boxing match. The September 3rd Reno Evening Gazette reported the words of an announcer at the match who read a telegram from Gans’ mother aloud. She wrote, “Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring back the bacon.”

It’s unclear whether she made it up on the spot or was repeating an already well-known phrase, but there is no hard evidence of this term’s use before that day.

Time is Money

Here’s an easy one to demystify. There are claims this expression can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, but the exact phrase was first used by Benjamin Franklin in a letter he wrote:

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Remember that TIME is Money. He can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.

So what does it mean, exactly? That was just good ol’ Ben’s way of saying your time is valuable. Sit on your butt all day and you might as well be throwing money away.

Costs an Arm and a Leg

It’s kind of a gross saying if you don’t know how it began — something so outrageously expensive you have to pay for it in body parts. Don’t worry, though, there’s no actual scenario that took place and generated this phrase.

In fact, it seems there really is no “story” behind this one, as the Word Detective explains. Internet users, as as they tend to do, have been propagating a myth for some time that painters used to charge by the number of subjects in a picture. The more arms and legs, the pricier the piece, and that’s how the saying came to be.

The truth is it’s just an exaggeration used to convey the sacrifice involved in meeting the steep cost of an expensive item.

Have you heard any alternate explanations? How about other finance cliches with mysterious origins?


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