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Make ends meet

Q From Robert Priddy, Norway: Is the origin of the expression to make ends meet known?

A Not really. It’s old enough that it has centuries ago become an idiom, a turn of phrase that we don’t usually stop to think about at all, though we understand immediately that to make ends meet is to have enough money to live on. The oldest example I can find is from Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England of about 1661: “Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring only to make both ends meet; and as for that little that lapped over he gave it to pious uses”, but the fact that Fuller is making a little joke using it suggests he already knew of it as a set phrase.

Where it comes from is hard to be sure about. It’s often said that it’s from bookkeeping, in which the total at the bottom (“end”) of the column of income must at least match that at the bottom of the expenditure column if one is not to be living beyond one’s income (think of Mr Micawber’s advice to the young David Copperfield). The phrase is also known in the form to make both ends of the year meet, which might strengthen that connection if we think of the usual end-of-year accounting, except that that form isn’t the original one and wasn’t recorded until Tobias Smollett used it in Roderick Random in 1748.

Several subscribers have told me that their understanding of the phrase was that it came from tailoring or dressmaking, in which the amount of cloth available might only just be sufficient to allow the garment to wrap completely around the body and so make the ends meet. Thomas Fuller implies something of the sort in the quotation above. A subscriber whom I know only as Ludwik says there is a similar saying in Polish, związać koniec z końcem (“to tie up one end with the other”); it evokes the image of a belt or similar item that likewise one had to hope would be long enough for its purpose. It suggests the phrase may contain a similar idea to another idiom, to have enough to go round, which comes from the hope that one has enough food for everyone at table. It might be that language writers have taken the associations of the phrase with money too literally in arguing that it’s connected with bookkeeping.

Where it comes from is hard to be sure about. It’s often said that it’s from bookkeeping, in which the total at the bottom (“end”) of the column of income must at least match that at the bottom of the expenditure column if one is not to be living beyond one’s income (think of Mr Micawber’s advice to the young David Copperfield). The phrase is also known in the form to make both ends of the year meet, which might strengthen that connection if we think of the usual end-of-year accounting, except that that form isn’t the original one and wasn’t recorded until Tobias Smollett used it in Roderick Random in 1748.

Several subscribers have told me that their understanding of the phrase was that it came from tailoring or dressmaking, in which the amount of cloth available might only just be sufficient to allow the garment to wrap completely around the body and so make the ends meet. Thomas Fuller implies something of the sort in the quotation above. A subscriber whom I know only as Ludwik says there is a similar saying in Polish, zwiazac koniec z koncem (“to tie up one end with the other”); it evokes the image of a belt or similar item that likewise one had to hope would be long enough for its purpose. It suggests the phrase may contain a similar idea to another idiom, to have enough to go round, which comes from the hope that one has enough food for everyone at table. It might be that language writers have taken the associations of the phrase with money too literally in arguing that it’s connected with bookkeeping.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Jun. 2003

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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: 14 June 2003.