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Daylight robbery

Q From John Gray: In the BBC Radio 4 programme Midweek recently, Victoria Coren said that the phrase daylight robbery came from the old window tax and so was a crime that took away one’s daylight. But an online site says that it has a much more prosaic meaning, of a barefaced requirement to pay, and only dates from 1949. What do you think?

A I think Ms Coren has it completely wrong. But we can’t pin its origin so neatly to 1949, even though that’s its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Let’s get the window tax out of the way first. It was imposed by William III in 1696; every household had to pay a levy depending on the number of windows in the house, a crude measure of prosperity or income. It was hated, because it was considered to be a tax on light and air. It led to some cases of windows being blocked up, usually temporarily when an inspection was due, though some houses were actually built with no bedroom windows. The tax was finally abolished only in 1851.

The OED’s first example of daylight robbery from 1949, being a century after the tax was abolished, certainly seems to scotch any link. Actually, the figurative sense has been around a bit longer than the OED says — it appears for example in Harold Brighouse’s 1916 play Hobson’s Choice.

And the idiom doesn’t necessarily refer to a crime as such, but to any unreasonable financial demand or outrageous injustice: if you went into a pub in a strange town and were charged a tenner for a pint of beer, you’d no doubt describe that as daylight robbery (or possibly highway robbery, a related term with the same sense).

But no reputable authority would suggest the phrase and the window tax were connected, because of the way it clearly developed. It comes without doubt from a literal daylight robbery; to attempt one during the day rather than under cover of darkness was to be daring or audacious because of the much greater risk of being opposed or recognised. These associations were carried over into the metaphor.

I say again: nothing to do with windows!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Jan. 2006

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 21 January 2006.