Q&A: Why is a win called a “windfall”?

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, we have favourable wins…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about the lottery.

A: Look, we’ve been over this before. The odds of winning are NOT 50/50.

Q: But you either win or you don’t! 

A: …

Q: Well, anyway, it wasn’t about that. I want to know WHY a win of some kind is called a “windfall”. 

A: Ah, okay.

Q: Maybe I could understand “winfall” – as you’ve had a win. But where does wind and falling relate to winning money?

A: Well nothing originally. The compound word “windfall” has been around in English since the mid-1400s, however it began with a far more literal definition.

Q: What was that?

A: “Windfall” originally was indeed wind-powered, referring to branches or fruit blown down by the wind from the tree.

Q: How could this be considered good fortune?

A: Well, there is an entire branch of ‘tree law’ that talks—

Q: Haha, BRANCH of tree law… nice!

A: Thanks. Anyway, it talks about your rights to what is in a tree. For example, if a neighbour’s peach tree was hanging over your fence, the law stated that you could NOT pick from it. However, if the wind caused the fruit to fall, under some circumstances, it may be okay to eat that fruit.

Q: Peach emojis for everyone! Or maybe it’s eggplants? Hmm.

A: The fruit that fell to the ground was literally known as “windfall fruit”. And it wasn’t just fruit either. According to old English laws, if a chestnut tree is on common land, you could collect the “windfall” harvest that has fallen to the ground. It also applied to branches or timber – but we’ll discuss that later.

Q: So it actually IS good fortune for the wind to cause it to fall!

A: Yes, unless you’ve been secretly shaking the tree.

Q: Oh no, I only do that with vending machines.

A: It took until the 1540s for the meaning of “windfall” to become less breezy and literal and add a figurative meaning – relating to any “unexpected acquisition”.

Q: A windfall doesn’t have to be money?

A: That’s right.

Q: So for example, it might be a bunch of other snack items that fortuitously fell to the tray of the vending machine while one was buying a Mars bar?

A: …

Q: Hypothetically speaking, of course.

A: Yes, anything that comes along unexpectedly and results in good fortune is considered a windfall. Clearly a monetary win is the most likely – such as a win in a lottery. 

Q: They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but it can fall from them if it’s windy enough!

A: Precisely. 

Q: What was that timber thing you were going to discuss later?

A: Ah yes. During the golden age of sailboat building in the 16th and 17th century, timber was highly sought after. However, homeowners were forbidden from selling their trees to the navy. And yet, if the tree were blown down in a storm, they were able to benefit from this “windfall” and get money for the timber!

Q: Timmmmmbbbbbbeeeer!

A: These days, the original literal “stuff falling from a tree” meaning still endures, however the word is mostly used in a figurative sense – describing a win of some kind that has nothing to do with a tree or wind.

Q: It would be fun just to sit in a tree and drop stacks of cash though.

A: Although a rapidly falling dollar could risk inflation…

Q: You’re such a killjoy.

A: Anyway, in some countries, they even have “windfall taxes” to offset large profits – often in the resources sector. In Turkey, there is even a windfall tax on wind energy!

Q: So to recap, a “windfall” can literally mean a tree or fruit that falls due to the wind, but is more likely to be used figuratively to describe any unexpected acquisition. 

A: That’s it! And the acquisition could be a win, a gain, some help – anything that denotes unexpected good fortune. Such as winning a lottery.

Q: That reminds me of my uncle Tony who blew all his lottery winnings on a fancy limousine. He had nothing left to chauffeur it.

A: Groan…

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