What Does Pay the Piper Mean?

Pay the Piper Meaning

Definition: To face the consequences of one’s actions.

Origin of Pay the Piper

This expression originated around the 1680s. Many sources suggest that it comes from the story The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The story of the pied piper takes place in the 1200s. The town, Hamelin, had a rat infestation. A man in colorful clothes offered to get rid of all the rats, for a fee. The town agreed, and the man played a pipe to get all the rats to leave the town and drown themselves in a nearby river.

When the piper came to collect payment, the townspeople told him that they would not pay. The rats were already gone, so they had no reason to make good on their debt. As revenge, the pied piper played his pipe to get all the children of the town to follow him away. It is unclear what happened to the children after that.

Although the rat portion of this story is fiction, historical records do show that this town lost its children at that time. The exact cause is unknown.

The idea behind this idiom is that if you do not pay the piper (or pay your debts), something bad will happen to you. A variation of this expression is pay the fiddler. A possibly related idiom is he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Examples of Pay the Piper

idiom pay the piperIn the example below, two friends are arguing about a shirt that one of them borrowed from the other.

Ted: Listen, I’ve asked you multiple times to return my shirt. Do it now.

Rufio: Or what? What could you do to me if I decide to keep it forever?

Ted: Just trust me. It’s time to pay the piper. If you don’t do it something bad will happen to you.

pay the piper originThis dialogue shows two friends talking together about the mistake one of them made.

Zayna: I accidentally told Susan that I think she’s annoying.

Ben: So I guess that friendship is over.

Zayna: I hope it’s not. I’m going to go apologize.

Ben: Aren’t you worried that she’ll yell at you?

Zayna: Yes, but I deserve it. I insulted her, so I’ve got to pay the piper. If letting her yell at me can make her forgive me, I’ve got to try.

More Examples

The quote is from one football player talking about another in a positive way.

  • “We definitely have the talent. But now we just got to pay the piper, go do the work,” said Marshall. “You know what, it’s gonna be special. (Manning) is a born leader. He’s a true leader. I’ve enjoyed my time with him so far.” –New York Daily News

This excerpt is from an article about a doctor in legal trouble.

  • Authorities say a pill-pushing doctor who is criminally charged for teaming with an ex-Brooklyn Assemblyman to peddle millions of Oxycodone tablets to addicted patients should be forced to pay the piper. –New York Post


The phrase pay the piper means to take responsibility for what one owes or deserves.