What Does Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Mean?

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Meaning

Definition: Taking something (like money) from one person to give back to a different person; Settling one debt by incurring another.

Origin of Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

This expression has existed since at least the 1300s. Its exact origin is unclear, but we do have some early sources for it.

The names involved appear to be biblical references. Both Peter and Paul were disciples of Jesus in the New Testament.

One of the first uses of the phrase was in 1340 by John Wycliffe:

  • How should God approve that you rob Peter and give this robbery to Paul in the name of Christ?

A fun origin story that doesn’t exactly mesh with the facts is that of St. Peter and St. Paul’s cathedral.

As the story goes, St. Peter’s was made into a cathedral in 1540, but just 10 years later it was joined to the diocese of London. As a result, many of its estates were responsible to pay for the repairs of St. Paul’s cathedral.

In other words, St. Peter’s was being robbed to pay for St. Paul’s.

As fitting as this story might be, it must be a happy coincidence because the expression was around a few hundred years before this event took place.

Examples of Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

to rob peter to pay The dialogue below shows two women discussing how they paid their debts previously in their lives.

Mila: I’m glad I finally have a good job. When I was younger, it was very difficult to afford the basic necessities, like food and rent.

Betty: Oh, I agree. It was difficult for me too. For a long time, I was robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Mila: How so?

Betty: For example, I’d borrow money from one friend to pay off my debt to another friend. I was constantly borrowing money from everyone I knew. I know it must have been very annoying, but, luckily, my friends were very generous. Eventually, I was able to pay everyone back.

Mila: That’s good.

steal from peter to pay paul This dialogue shows a couple of roommates arguing about borrowing money.

John: Amanda, I hate to ask you this, but could I borrow some money?

Amanda: No way. I know that you just borrowed money from Deacon.

John: Exactly! That’s why I need money from you now.

Amanda: That doesn’t make any sense. You already have his money.

John: I know, but he needs it back sooner than he thought. Now I need to borrow money from you, so I can give Deacon his money back.

Amanda: It sounds like you’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul.

John: I know I am, but if I can pay Deacon back with your money, I can pay you back next week when I get paid. Then we’ll all be happy!

Amanda: Just this once.

More Examples

This excerpt describes financial fears about the Zika virus.

  • “We just can’t keep robbing Peter to pay Paul,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told journalists in Boston last week, noting the country must be better prepared to deal with health emergencies without raiding existing programs. –LA Times

The second excerpt is about the difficulty of living on minimum wage.

  • “Today my rent is due and I’m not able to pay,” she said Monday. “Mother says, ‘Keep going in school. God is going to bless you.’ It’s tough. I feel like I’m always robbing Peter to pay Paul and I’m never caught up.” –LA Times

Summary

The phrase robbing Peter to pay Paul describes borrowing from one person in order to pay back borrowed money from a separate person.

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