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Pony up

Q From David Shapiro: Where does pony up come from?

A This is a classic American expression, but one now widely known in other parts of the English-speaking world. To pony up means to pay what you owe or settle your debt. It usually refers to a smallish sum of money:

The promotion offers Virginians 16 and older the chance to fish without a license for three days in the hopes some of those folks will have so much fun they’ll decide to pony up a few bucks for the privilege of fishing for the next 12 months.

The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Virginia), 2 Jun. 2013.

It dates from the early nineteenth century. This is the earliest example so far known:

The afternoon, before the evening, the favoured gentlemen are walking rapidly into the merchant-tailors shops, and very slowly out, unless they ponied up the Spanish.

The Rural Magazine and Farmer’s Monthly Museum (Hartford, Connecticut), May 1819.

Spanish here is slang for money, a term known a little earlier in Britain — Francis Grose recorded it in the 1788 edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. It’s short for Spanish money, from Spanish dollars, pieces of eight, which were widely used as currency in the New World and elsewhere.

It seems very likely that pony similarly derives from English slang. It appears in several works at about the same time, including the 1796 edition of Grose’s book. It also turns up in another famous work, which will expand even further your knowledge of long-obsolete slang terms for money:

It’s everything now o’days to be able to flash the screens — sport the rhino — show the needful — post the pony — nap the rent — stump the pewter.

Tom and Jerry, by W T Moncrieff, 1821.

It is often assumed that it comes from the equine pony because it was a small horse, as relatively small as the sums of money which users were concerned with. Among the moneyed classes a pony at this time meant 25 guineas (later 25 pounds), a very large amount at the time by most people’s standards, but presumably not thought excessive by individuals who paid their bills in guineas. Horses for courses, you might say.

Another story has it that pony is a shortened form of the Latin words legem pone (in the second, said as two syllables the vowels are roughly as in English hot and met), the first two words of the fifth part of Psalm 119, whose first line in full is “Legem pone mihi Domine viam iustificationum tuarum” (“Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes”). The Oxford English Dictionary says that this used to begin the psalms at Matins on the 25th day of the month. It became linked in particular with 25 March, the first quarter day of the year, and hence to the settlement of debts. The OED adds that it became used “as an allusive expression for payment of money or cash down”. It appears for the first time in Thomas Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry of 1570. The OED has no citations after 1694, which is a century before pony begins to be recorded in its monetary sense, though the phrase continued to be known because it was kept as the title of the English version of the psalm in the Book of Common Prayer.

Caution is needed because of the gap, but as pone was said very much like pony, the abbreviation of legem pone followed by creation of the noun and verb seem so probable as to be almost inevitable. In many early examples the word is spelled poney, implying that its users knew it wasn’t the same word as the equine pony.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Aug. 2013

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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: 10 August 2013.