Friday, January 21, 2011

"Making money": Good English or all-American?

Fred Shapiro, the quote sleuth behind the Yale Book of Quotations, also contributes to the Freakonomics blog at the New York Times (a fact that ought to be blazoned abroad, in my view, but somehow is not). Anyway, he posted yesterday about the expression "make money," responding to a query about the assertion  (in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged") that Americans had coined the phrase.

We didn't, of course, but language watchers in the 19th century made the same claim -- as an accusation, not a boast. "Making money," had it been American, would have been just the sort of crass commercial lingo Americans were thought to enjoy. In his 1871 book, "Americanisms," Maximilian Schele de Vere refuted the notion:
It is equally unjust to charge Americans with the invention of the phrase, to make money, much as they may be addicted to the practice. Dr. Johnson already rebuked Boswell sharply for using it, and said: "Don't you see the impropriety of it? To make money is to coin it; you should say, to get money." 
In 1791, Johnson had lost that battle; as Shapiro notes, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase  "to make money" back to 1457, and "it was probably not Americans who were using it in 1457." And MWDEU notes that Shakespeare and Jane Austen also used the expression, though even in the mid-20th century you could find word mavens expressing a faint distaste.

Shapiro also  writes for the Yale Alumni Magazine, and this month's column covers familiar quotations that originated with (usually uncredited) women. "I will defend to the death your right to say it" isn't Voltaire's, "iron curtain" isn't Churchill's, "no time like the present" isn't an anonymous proverb -- and Shapiro can tell you where the bylines are buried.


Bryan White said...

Ha! You always manage to bring things to my attention that I normally wouldn't give a second thought. Yes, "making money" is incorrect in the literal sense. You're acquiring money. You're not making anything. It does sound very American though. I would have guessed early 20th century. It's surprising to hear that it goes back further back than Shakespeare.

Faldone said...

The good folks at Language Log have traced the expression and the concept back to ancient Rome and even ancient Greece.

John Cowan said...

In the old days, it was miners and minters who made money in the literal sense; in the modern age of fractional reserve banking, it is bankers who make it whenever they lend out more than they have on hand.