origin and sense development of the noun ‘budget’



The following definition of budget is from the New English Dictionary (i.e. Oxford English Dictionary – 1888 edition):

A statement of the probable revenue and expenditure for the ensuing year, with financial proposals founded thereon, annually submitted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on behalf of the Ministry, for the approval of the House of Commons. Sometimes put for the condition of the national finances as disclosed in the ministerial statement; also for the financial measures proposed. Hence applied to an analogous statement made by the finance minister of any foreign country; also to a prospective estimate of receipts and expenditure, or a financial scheme, of a public body, or (humorously) of an individual.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in presenting his annual statement, was formerly said to open the budget.




The word budget is from Middle French bougette, diminutive of bouge. Randle Cotgrave thus defined these words in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611):

Bouge: feminine. A budget, wallet, great pouch, male [= mail, travelling bag], or case of leather, seruing to carrie things in behind a man on horsebacke.
Bougette: feminine. A little coffer, or trunke of wood, couered with leather, wherewith the women of old time carried their iewels, attires, and trinkets at their saddle bowes, when they rid into the countrey; now gentlemen call so, both any such trunke; and the box, or till of their cabinets wherein they keepe their money; also, a little male, pouch, or budget.

French bouge is itself from Latin bulgaleather purse or pouchsmall bag hanging from the arm, and, as a slang word, womb.

This Latin word is in turn of Gaulish origin, and is related to the following words in three Celtic languages:

– Irish bolg and Welsh bol, meaning belly,
– Breton bolc’hflax pod, hence probably French bogue, meaning bur (i.e. the prickly case within which the chestnut develops).

In Modern French, un bouge is a hovel, from the obsolete sense a semi-circular closet used for storage or as a bedroom. In the above-mentioned dictionary, Randle Cotgrave wrote:

Bouge: masculine. A swelling, strouting, or standing out in a flat peece of worke; hence, the bosse of a buckler; and, a belly, or out-leaning in the middle of a wall, &c.;  and, a little roome, or closet, built without the wall of a chamber.

The English noun bulge was derived from French bouge or from Latin bulga. The noun bilge seems to be a nautical variant of bulge. The bilges are the lowest internal portion of the hull. Bilge water, hence simply bilge, denotes the dirty and foul-smelling water that collects inside the bilges of a ship. This is why bilge came to mean, figuratively, rubbish, nonsense.


The English word budget, dating back to the early 15th century, originally meant a pouch, bag, wallet, usually of leather.

By the end of the 16th century, it had come to also refer to the contents of a bag or wallet. It was used in particular in the sense of a quantity of written or printed material. For instance, on 23th October 1729, the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote the following in a letter to the publisher of the Dublin Weekly Journal:

(1841 edition)
I read, as you desired, the whole budget of papers you sent about the coals.

In the sense of a collection of news, the word was a frequent title for journals, such as the Pall Mall Budget.

The word was also used in the sense of supply or quantity. In Fables of Æsop and other eminent mythologists with morals and reflexions (1692), the English author Sir Roger L’Estrange (1616-1704) wrote:

A Fox and a Cat.
There was a Question started betwixt a Fox and a Cat, which of the Two could make the best Shift in the World, if they were put to a Pinch. For my own part, (says Reynard,) when the worst comes to the worst, I have a whole Budget of Tricks to come off with at last.

When the phrase to open the budget was first used about a Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was to compare him to a mountebank opening his wallet of quack medicines and conjuring tricks.

Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) was First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The 1733 Excise Crisis was the result of the plans he made to shift the burden of taxation from landed wealth (which fell heavily on the country gentry who dominated the House of Commons) to consumption (which would have a much greater impact on the poor). Walpole explained and defended his proposals in a pamphlet, A Letter from a Member of Parliament to his Friends in the Country, concerning the Duties on Wine and Tobacco. One of the most virulent leaders of the opposition to Walpole, William Pulteney (1684-1764), published a reply called The Budget opened. Or, An answer to a Pamphlet intitled, A Letter from a Member of Parliament to his Friends in the Country, concerning the Duties on Wine and Tobacco. This reply attacked and mocked the proposals as typically Walpolean trickery, like the fraudulent remedies of a quack doctor:

At length, the Mountain is deliver’d. The grand Mystery, which was long deemed too sacred for the unhallow’d Eyes of the People, is reveal’d. What is reveal’d? Nothing, but what has been known, confuted and exploded long before it was publickly acknowledg’d.
The Budget is opened; and our State Emperick¹ hath dispensed his Packets by his Zany² Couriers through all Parts of the Kingdom. For my self, I do not pretend to understand this Art of political Legerdemain³.

¹ The State Emperick: a new ballad. To the tune of, Which no body can deny was published in 1682. Here, emperick (= empiric) denotes a fraudulent practitioner of medicine.
²zany in this text is a charlatan’s attendant.
³ Here, legerdemain means trickery; it is from French léger de main, literally light of hand.

Soon, the originally satirical phrase to open the budget applied to the Chancellor of the Exchequer became the established political term. And it is ironical that one of the persons who first used the phrase was none other than the author, politician and patron of the arts Horace Walpole (1717-97), son of Sir Robert:

Lord North opened the Budget, and proposed additional taxes on coaches, dice and cards, and newspapers, and a tax on stage coaches, exempted before. All these were light, and were approved, yet that on newspapers was liable to suspicion. Lord North denied any danger to Jamaica, vaunted the prosperous state of the kingdom, and as usual, except on danger to his own person, he treated the whole with mirth and ridicule.
(24th April 1776 – from The last journals of Horace Walpole during the reign of George III from 1771–1783 (1910))

French started using the English budget as early as in the 1760s about British finances. Its meanings are now those of the English noun. From a French viewpoint, this word (pronounced /bydʒɛ/) is both an Anglicism and a ‘boomerang word’.

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