a hypothesis as to the origin of ‘to pay through the nose’



to pay excessively, to be charged exorbitantly




The expression to pay through the nose is first recorded in Piazza universale di proverbi Italiani, or, A common place of Italian proverbs and proverbial phrases digested in alphabetical order (1666), by Giovanni Torriano (floruit 1640):

Oft-times Rich men engrossing commodities, will make one pay through the nose, whereas they might sell the cheaper.

And, in The rehearsal transpros’d, or, Animadversions upon a late book intituled, A preface, shewing what grounds there are of fears and jealousies of popery (1672), the English poet and politician Andrew Marvell (1621-78) wrote:

When they came to seek for Match, and Bullet, and Powder, there was none to be had. The Fanaticks had bought it all up, and made them pay for it most unconscionably, and through the Nose.

The expression was then defined in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E. Gent.”:

Pay through the Nose, Excessively, or with Extortion.

A clue as to the origin of to pay through the nose might be provided by an earlier expression, to bore (someone) through the nose, which meant to utterly deceive, completely gull (someone). The earliest occurrence of this expression that I have found is in English-men for my money: or, A pleasant comedy, called, A woman will haue her will (1598), by the English playwright William Haughton (died 1605). Vandalle, a Dutchman, is being tricked by Pisaro’s daughters, who address him:

– Laurentia: Well we must confesse we trouble you,
And ouer watching makes a wiseman madde,
Much more a foole, theres a Cusshon for you.
– Marina: To bore you through the nose.
– Laurentia: To lay your head on.

To bore through the nose was then used in The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda, the 1619 translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ last novel, Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. The following passage takes place in Rome, where the prince of Denmark and the duke of Nemours, rival suitors to Auristela, are bargaining with a painter to buy her portrait. Although they are disguised as poor pilgrims, they have just offered him a precious chain each when the governor of Rome, passing through the street full of onlookers, becomes suspicious and

beheld the portrait and the chains, and thought that these were other pledges than belonged to pilgrims: wherefore he committed them to the safe custody of a third person, carried the table [= picture] to his own house, and committed the pilgrims to ward. The painter was bored through the nose, seeing his hopes vanished, the chains in another man’s hands than his own, and his portrait in the justice’s power.

The expression was also used in 1642 by the Anglo-Welsh historian and writer James Howell (circa 1594-1666) in Instructions for Forreine Travell:

In the perambulation of Italy young Travellers must be cautious, among diuers other to avoyd one kind of Furbery or cheat, whereunto many are subiect, which is, that in som great Townes, specially Rome and Venice, there are certain Brokers of manuscripts, who are no other than Mountibanks in that kind, that use to insinuate themselves to the society of strangers, and bring them with a shew of reservednesse such and such papers magnifying them for rare extraordinary peeces, and dangerous to bee divulg’d, whereas they prove oftentimes old flat things that either are printed already in ‘Te’, ‘oro politico’, ‘Boterus’, or ‘Bodin’; Or they are some absolet peeces reflecting happily upon the times of Cosmo de Medici, or touching the expulsion of the Jesuits out of the territories of St. Marc, or the creation of some Pope, and such like, which do nothing at all advantage one to be acquainted with the present face of things; In the Court of Spain there are likewise such Interlopers, and I have known divers Dutch Gentlemen grossly guld by this cheat, and som English bor’d also through the nose this way, by paying excessive prices for them.

A variant was to gull (someone) through the nose. It was used by the English poet John Cleveland (1613-58) in A Lenten Letany. Composed for a confiding Brother, for the benefit and edification of the Faithfull Ones, a parody on the church service published posthumously in 1662:

That it may please thee to suppose
Our actions are as good as those
That gull the People through the Nose,
Quæsumus te, &c.

Other variants were used by the playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625). In The Night Walker, or The Little Thief, first published in 1640, he used to bore someone’s nose. Having discovered the coffin where Maria is lying, Mistress Newlove says to Thomas Lurcher:

These are fine tricks, you hope she’s in a Swoon,
But I’ll take order she shall ne’er recover
To bore my Nose; come, take her up and bury her
Quickly, or I’ll cry out; take her up instantly.

Fletcher also used to bore someone’s nose in The Island Princess (1619-21?):

– Piniero: Where are you?
– Ruy Dias: Now, Piniero, what’s the haste you seek me?
– Piniero: Do you know this sign, sir?
– Ruy Dias: Ha!
– Piniero: Do you know this emblem?
Your nose is bored.
– Ruy Dias: Bored? What is that!
– Piniero: You are topt, sir:
The king’s come home again, the king!
– Ruy Dias: The devil!

Fletcher used the variant to bore someone’s nostrils in the comedy The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed (1611?). Moroso, “an old rich doating Citizen, suitor to Livia”, says:

I know, being old, ’tis fit I am abused;
I know ’tis handsome, and I know moreover
I am to love her for’t.
What gold I have, pearl, bracelets, rings, or ouches,
Or what she can desire, gowns, petticoats,
Waistcoats, embroider’d stockings, scarfs, cawls, feathers,
Hats, five-pound garters, muffs, masks, ruffs, and ribbands,
I am to give her for’t.
But when I have done all this, and think it duty,
Is’t requisite another bore my nostrils?
Riddle me that!

In to pay through the nose therefore, the original image was most probably someone being led by the nose, gulled, tricked, led like a dumb animal by a string through a nose-hole—such an animal having been previously bored, pierced, through the nose.

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