Why pay through the nose?
By Anatoly Liberman
Why indeed? But despite our financial woes, I am interested in the origin of the idiom, not in exorbitant prices. On the face of it (and the nose cannot be separated from the face), the idiom pay through the nose makes no sense. Current since the second half of the 17th century and probably transparent to the contemporaries, it later joined such puzzling phrases as kick the bucket and bees’ knees.
Idioms are harder to trace to their “roots” than words. Etymology, though not an exact science, is governed by certain regularities (sound correspondences, patterns of semantic change, and so forth), but a search for the origin of idioms rarely needs the expertise of historical linguists. They will offer good advice only when words have changed their meaning, as happened, for example, in curry favor (where curry means “brush, groom” and favor once referred to a donkey and later to a horse) or forlorn hope (from Dutch), in which hope meant “group, detachment of soldiers” (a cognate of Engl. heap) and forlorn had the sense of “lost” (a cognate of Engl. lorn and German verloren). It is possible that nose in pay through the nose did have a meaning different from the one we now ascribe to it, but, other than that, we cannot account for the odd phrase unless we succeed in reconstructing the circumstances in which it was coined. A product of popular culture? An obscene joke from a Restoration comedy? A borrowing from the language of thieves? In the 13th century, the famous Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson explained to his countrymen the meaning of numerous phrases that originated in ancient myths. By his time, more than two hundred years after the Christianization of Iceland, those myths had either fallen or were falling into oblivion. I wish we had someone like him who would be capable of solving our puzzles. But this is a forlorn hope. So to business.
The Internet supplies those who look for the history of pay through the nose with four or five explanations from books bearing the generic title Phrase Origins. All of them, regardless of their reliability, have a fatal flaw: they do not cite their sources. At best, they say it is usually believed or according to legend, but never add where they found the legend, who wrote what they repeat, or even approximately where the gossip originated. Only dictionaries of quotations try to discover the authors of famous lines, and their efforts have been crowned with great success.
This is what we can find. “If you were caught stealing in medieval times, they sliced a slit in your nose.” Anywhere (or only in England?) in the Middle Ages at any time? “In medieval times, when the Jews were being bled for money, any objection by them to paying was greeted with a slitting of their noses.” Again the Middle Ages (which, incidentally, lasted more than a thousand years), but now it is the Jews, rather than the Swedes. The allusion to bleeding noses will recur below. “Odin laid a tax of a penny a nose upon every Swede.” However, Odin (or Othinn) was the greatest god of the Scandinavian pantheon, and it is hard to understand what he could have done with such a tax, for he neither sold nor bought anything. Some time ago, I explained (in this blog) the origin of the idiom it rains cats and dogs. According to one of the nonsensical articles I had consulted, Odin was surrounded by cats and dogs, and they caused rain. This is a lie bordering on blasphemy. Odin stayed away from cats and dogs, and those animals had nothing to do with rain. Why should people who have never read Scandinavian myths pretend that they are familiar with them and have the temerity to flaunt their ignorance in print? Also, what payment has even the cruelest dictator ever obtained through the noses of his subjects?
“The Swedish poll tax was a nose tax.” This is a variant of the preceding one, and, for a change, I think I can state where this “explanation” of the English idiom came from. An Icelandic-English Dictionary (that is, the great Old Icelandic dictionary by Cleasby-Vigfusson) says the following in the entry nef-gildi: “‘a nose-tax,’ poll-tax, payable to the king…. This ancient ‘nose-tax’ was also imposed by the Norseman on conquered countries, and the name gave rise to strange legends; thus king Thorsgisl, the Norse conqueror of Ireland (A.D. 830-845), is, by an Irish chronicler, said to have levied a tax of an ounce on each hearth, the penalty for defaulting being the loss of their nose. Prof. Munch… has traced the origin of this legend to the simple fact that the king imposed a ‘nose-tax’ or poll-tax on the conquered Irish, just as Harold Fairhair afterwards did in Norway.” There is no mystery in the phrase nose tax. The rhetorical figure called synecdoche (“part for the whole,” or pars pro toto in Latin) is common in just such situations. Poll means ‘head’ (this, despite the difference in spelling, also happens to be the second element of tadpole, “toad head”), so that poll tax is a formation of the same type as nose tax. When we say a hundred head of cattle or all hands aboard, we don’t mean that the heads or hands will be separated from the rest of the bodies. In medieval Scandinavia, nose, rather than head, was the synecdoche for “person.” Consequently, the tax was levied on every “nose.” Reference to Odin may have appeared from Ynglinga saga, the mythological part of Snorri Sturluson’s A History of the Kings of Norway. In chapter 8 of that engrossing book, it is said that “in all Sweden people paid a tax to Odin, a penny for every nose.” There, according to Snorri’s design, Odin is represented as a king rather than a god.
The rest is now plain sailing. “A possible explanation for this [phrase] lies in the ‘nose tax’ levied upon the Irish by the Danes in the ninth century. Those who did not pay had their noses slit.” “The most plausible [explanation] is perhaps that the Swedish poll-tax was once called a nose-tax.” Cautious authors state that that there is no evidence for the legend. It would be better to say that no evidence exists for the slitting of noses. Especially important is the fact that the English idiom, which surfaced eight centuries after the Vikings’ raids, cannot possibly have such an old source. Another hypothesis reminds us that as early as the 17th century, rhino was slang for “money” and rhinos is Greek for “nose” (as seen in rhinoceros, literally “nose-horn”). “Noses bleed, and the man who is forced to pay is also ‘bled’. Some elaborate word-play of this character must lie behind the phrase.” Clever, but rather improbable, though, as noted, the origin of the idiom in thieves’ cant (or among university wits, who played with Greek words?) cannot be excluded. Finally, we sometimes hear that pay through the nose appeared as a variant of lead by the nose or as an alternation of pay through the noose (!), or is a direct translation from French. Since such an idiom does not exist in French, we needn’t bother about the last etymology.
An essay written only to declare surrender is a sad thing, but I stumbled on an explanation that, as far as I can judge, deserves being disinterred from the article bearing the title “Horse-Marines” (Notes and Queries, Series 9/II, 1898, p. 457). Its author is Richard Edgcumbe. If someone is interested, at that time he lived at 33, Tedworth Square, S.W., London. I hope that his descendants or the present occupants of his residence (does it still exist?) read this blog every Wednesday.
“Then, again, ‘Paying through the nose’. This was originally a common expression on board ship: ‘Pay out the cable’, ‘pay out handsomely’. The nose of a ship is, of course, the bow; its nostrils are the hawse holes on either side. Now, it does not seem very difficult (at all events, for a sailor) to associate extortionate disbursements with handsome payments—such, for instance, as paying out a chain cable (through the nose), especially when the order is conveyed in such a language as this, ‘Pay out handsomely.’ At all events, I can speak on this matter from personal experience as a midshipman. To my mind, ‘paying through the nose’ for anything has always been associated with the rattling of a ‘payed out’ chain cable, after the anchor has gripped the ground. Whatever the learned may say to the contrary, with me that impression will never fade. Now that the term ‘paying through the nose’ has reached the shore, it is natural that so obvious an origin should be lost. In conclusion, I ask to be forgiven for what may seem to be dogmatic in an old sea dog.” In my opinion, “the learned” should applaud Mr. Edgcumbe. His is a conjecture any word sleuth can only wish for.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”