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Pelf

Pronounced /pɛlf/Help with pronunciation

The only place you’re still likely to find this word used at all often is in the Indian subcontinent, where it remains part of the active English vocabulary, at least of journalists. They continue to use it in the older British sense of money, especially when it has been gained dishonestly or dishonourably. It’s now rare elsewhere except in historical contexts or among writers who like to demonstrate the breadth of their vocabularies. Those who know the words of The Red Flag will recall one verse:

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man’s frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

Most of the historical examples I found were in verse; it seems to have been a literary word at one point. A once-famous example appeared in the sixth canto of Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel:

Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

You might replace pelf by ill-gotten gains or filthy lucre or other expressions that disparage the senseless acquisition of mere wealth or which express the Christian view that the love of money is the root of all evil. Its own root is the Old French pelfre, booty or spoils. A relative has bequeathed us pilfer, to steal things of little value. The first sense of pelf in English was of objects of value that had been stolen or taken as the spoils of war. By the fifteenth century it had taken on the idea of money or riches, but particularly seen as a corrupting influence. Abraham Lincoln had this sense in mind when he wrote in 1864: “Murders for old grudges, and murders for pelf, proceed under any cloak that will best cover for the occasion.”

When the Reverend Henry Todd produced a new edition of Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary in 1818, he added “paltry stuff” to Dr Johnson’s definition of “money, riches”. That wasn’t a pejorative editorial comment but a note of a usage that Johnson had left out because it was already defunct in the London speech of his time, though it clings on to this day in some British dialects. It had been around since about 1550, meaning broadly trash or rubbish. Stephen Gosson wrote in Pleasant Quips For Upstart Newfangled Gentlewomen in 1595, “All this new pelf, now sold in shops, in value true, not worth a louse.” It could also mean detritus or waste: in 1589 George Puttenham said in The Arte of English Poesie that “Pelf is properly the scraps or shreds of tailors and of skinners”. Dialect senses have included grass, roots, weeds and other waste material raked off the land.

All in all, not a word you will want to make friends with.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Oct. 2007

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 27 October 2007.