Q&A: Pay ‘through the nose’ + ‘an arm and a leg’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, money talks…

Q: Hi AWC, why do we refer to body parts when talking about something being expensive?

A: Such as?

Q: To pay “through the nose” or to pay “an arm and a leg”?

A: Ah! The phrase “paying through the nose” does indeed mean to pay a large amount, and Macquarie Dictionary suggests that its origin could go all the way back to the 9th century.

Q: Gosh, that’s old.

A: They point to the “nose” tax imposed on the Irish by the Danes who invaded at that time. 

Q: A nose tax? What, so if you had a big nose you went bankrupt?

A: Haha, not exactly. It seems it was called this because if you didn’t pay this particular tax, the Danes would slit your nose!

Q: Is that where “to cut off your nose despite your face” also comes from?

A: You mean “to cut off your nose TO SPITE your face”.

Q: Do I?

A: Yes, you do – as it’s all about spite. But no, it’s not related. Out of interest, that phrase means to end up disadvantaging yourself while attempting to hurt someone (the “spite” part). It first appeared in a 1796 dictionary – cutting off people’s noses was a common way to exact revenge in the Middle Ages.

Q: Probably a blessing not to have to smell things back then!

A: Anyway, the Oxford Dictionary believes the more likely origin of paying “through the nose” is much later – from a 1666 text that suggested that paying excessively was akin to a metaphor of bleeding through your nose. 

Q: Rather ironic, as the cheapest seats are usually the “nosebleed” section – way up high!

A: True. Apparently, during the 1600s, “rhino” (Greek for “nose”) was also a slang word for “money”. The nose/money connection seems unclear beyond this however.

Q: I’m pretty sure rhino horns are worth a lot of money. I learnt that on Safari.

A: Wow, didn’t realise you’d been to Africa!

Q: No, I meant “Safari” the web browser…bahahaa.

A: Okay, shall we talk about “an arm and a leg”?

Q: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that yes, we should.

A: Hilarious. Well, in this case it’s costing you TWO limbs. The phrase “to give my right arm” (to desire something greatly) has been around since the 1600s, as has one origin theory.

Q: What theory?

A: According to Grammar Monster, it came from the Irish halfpenny coins in the 1680s. Apparently, King Charles II (yes, the last King Charles before the current one) had copper halfpennies made for use in Ireland. And the two men who made them were named Sir Thomas Armstrong and Colonel George Legge.

Q: Okay, I see where THIS is going.

A: Yep. So, these coins ended up in use by the Irish over in America and “it will cost you an Arm and a Leg” was simply a way to say “it will cost you a halfpenny”. Over time, the link to the names was lost, so people assumed it meant very expensive.

Q: Hmmm, it all sounds very convenient. Got any other theories?

A: Yeah. Less of a theory and more actual usage. A 1908 article recounted hunting a bear claimed it cost an arm and a leg, besides the eye”. Then, as World War I and II saw the advent of machine guns and explosives on the battlefield, these conflicts quite literally cost soldiers “an arm and a leg”.

Q: So when did it stop being about missing limbs and start being about pricey hotel rooms?

A: Around 1948, we begin to see “an arm and a leg” used figuratively. The evolution seems clear – losing limbs during the war had been an actual high price to pay, so now it simply denoted a high price to pay for everything from diamond rings to .

Q: I like the 20th century origin story better than those two conveniently named coin-makers.

A: We agree.

Q: So to recap, to pay “through the nose” may be from a 9th century nose cutting tax or simply a metaphor for nose-bleedingly high prices.

A: That’s right.

Q: And to pay “an arm and a leg” is the figurative evolution of people who literally paid a high price – sometimes with their lives – during war.

A: Correct! 

Q: They say talk is cheap, but this one was expensive…

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