To rob Peter to pay Paul

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A stained glass depiction of Saints Peter and Paul

"To rob Peter to pay Paul",[1] or other versions that have developed over the centuries such as "to borrow from Peter to pay Paul", and "to unclothe Peter to clothe Paul",[2][3] are phrases meaning to take from one person or thing to give to another, especially when it results in the elimination of one debt by incurring another.[4] There are many other variants and similar phrases in numerous languages.[5] "Maneuvering the Apostles", which has the same meaning, was derived from this expression.[6][7] In patchwork, "Rob Peter to pay Paul" is an alternative name for the Drunkard's Path patchwork block.[8]

English folklore has it that the phrase alludes to an event in 1550 England in which the abbey church of Saint Peter, Westminster was deemed a cathedral by letters patent; but ten years later it was absorbed into the diocese of London when the diocese of Westminster was dissolved, and a few years after that many of its assets were expropriated for repairs to Saint Paul's Cathedral.[1][9] However, the phrase was popular even before that, dating back to at least 1380.[1]

This phrase may have originated in Middle English as a collocation of common names – similar to, for example, Tom, Dick, and Harry – with the religious connotations accruing later,[10] or alternatively as a reference to Saint Peter and Saint Paul (who are often depicted jointly in Christian art and regarded similarly in theology).[2][3] One reason for the frequent use of the two names in expressions is the alliteration they form.[5] The aforementioned Peter and Paul were apostles of Christ; both were martyred in ancient Rome and have the same feast day (i.e. the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29). Today, the feast occurs with minimal notice, but it was widely celebrated within England in the Middle Ages. Many churches there were dedicated to the pair. All of that, combined with the medieval English people being almost universally Christian, made it quite common to hear these names together.[11][12]

"Robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul" is Rudyard Kipling's adaptation of the phrase, used to criticize the concepts of income redistribution and collectivism.[13] Kipling included the expression in his poem "Gods of the Copybook Headings", and argued that it should be featured in "catechisms" of the Conservative Central Organization; the lesson of the phrase in his version, and of the poem in general, was that "only out of the savings of the thrifty can be made the wage-fund to set other men on the way to be prosperous."[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (2001). Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Wordsworth Editions. p. 923. ISBN 978-18-402-2310-1.
  2. ^ a b Cresswell, Julia (2010). Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. Oxford University Press. p. 370. ISBN 978-01-995-4793-7.
  3. ^ a b Ayto, John (2010). Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford University Press. p. 293. ISBN 978-01-995-4378-6.
  4. ^ Stevenson, Angus (2010). Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford University Press. p. 1536. ISBN 978-01-995-7112-3.
  5. ^ a b Marvin, Dwight Edwards (1922). The Antiquity of Proverbs: Fifty Familiar Proverbs and Folk Sayings with Annotations and Lists of Connected Forms, Found in All Parts of the World. G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 287–289.
  6. ^ Farmer, John Stephen (1890). Slang and Its Analogues. pp. 61.
  7. ^ Nash, Jay Robert (1992). Dictionary of Crime: Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 230. ISBN 978-15-907-7531-8.
  8. ^ Cory, Pepper (1998). 65 Drunkard's Path Quilt Designs. Courier. p. 8. ISBN 978-04-864-0046-4.
  9. ^ Dixon, James Main (1891). Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases. T. Nelson and Sons. p. 272.
  10. ^ Weekley, Ernest (2012). An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Courier. pp. 1077–1078. ISBN 978-04-861-2286-1.
  11. ^ Martin, Gary. "The meaning and origin of the expression: Rob Peter to pay Paul". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  12. ^ "rob Peter to pay Paul meaning". The Idioms Dictionary. Retrieved February 25, 2022.
  13. ^ Greenleaf, W. H. (2003). The British Political Tradition. Vol. 1: The Rise of Collectivism. Routledge. p. 216. ISBN 0-415-30300-1.
  14. ^ Kipling, Rudyard; Pinney, Thomas (2004). The Letters of Rudyard Kipling. Vol. 6: 1931–36. University of Iowa Press. p. 55. ISBN 0-87745-899-5.