With yet more stories in the press about banks, bailouts, recession, and the economy, I wondered what the new edition of The Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs had to say about money. Unsurprisingly, it’s something that has preoccupied people for a very, very long time. Here’s a selection of money-related proverbs from across the centuries.
Cash is king.
Modern saying, summarizing the position in a recession.
Bad money drives out good.
Money of lower intrinsic value tends to circulate more freely than money of higher intrinsic and equal nominal value, though what is recognized as money of higher value being hoarded; English proverb, early 20th century; known as ‘Gresham’s law’ from Thomas Gresham (d. 1579), English financier and founder of the Royal Exchange.
The best things in life are free.
English proverb, early 20th century, originally from the title of a song (1927) by Buddy De Sylva and Lew Brown.
Get the money honestly if you can.
American proverb, early 19th century; the idea is found in the classical world, in the poetry of Horace (65–8 BC), ‘If possible honestly, if not, somehow, make money.’
He that cannot pay, let him pray.
If you have no material resources, prayer is your only resort; English proverb, early 17th century.
Money can’t buy happiness.
English proverb, mid 19th century.
Money has no smell.
English proverb, early 20th century in this form, but originally deriving from a comment made by the Roman Emperor Vespasian (AD 9–79), in response to an objection to a tax on public lavatories; compare Where there’s muck there’s brass below.
Money is like sea water. The more you drink, the thirstier you become.
Possession of wealth creates an addiction to money; modern saying.
Money isn’t everything.
Often said in consolation or resignation; English proverb, early 20th century.
Money is power.
English proverb, mid 18th century.
Money is the root of all evil.
English proverb, mid 15th century, deriving from the Bible (I Timothy 6:10), ‘The love of money is the root of all evil’.
Money, like manure, does no good till it is spread.
English proverb, early 19th century; the idea is found earlier in the Essays of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), ‘Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.’
Money makes the mare to go.
Referring to money as a source of power; English proverb, late 15th century.
Money has influence; English proverb, mid 17th century.
A penny for the guy.
Traditional saying, used by children displaying a guy to ask for money towards celebrating Bonfire Night; a guy is an effigy representing Guy Fawkes, a leading conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up James I and his Parliament in 1605, which is traditionally burned on 5 November, the anniversary of the discovery of the plot.
Shrouds have no pockets.
Worldly wealth cannot be kept and used after death; English proverb, mid 19th century.
Time is money.
Often used to mean that time spent fruitlessly on something represents a real loss of money which could have been earned in that time; English proverb, late 16th century.
Where there’s muck there’s brass.
Dirty or unpleasant activities are also lucrative (brass here means ‘money’); English proverb, late 17th century; compare Money has no smell above.
You cannot serve God and Mammon.
Now generally used of wealth regarded as an evil influence; English proverb, mid 16th century, ultimately from the Bible (Matthew 6:24), ‘No man can serve two masters . . . Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’