The Grammarphobia Blog

No money in the till

Q: Can you tell me the origin of the expression “no money in the til”? I looked up the word “til,” but couldn’t find a definition related to purse or money box or anything other than time.

A: The phrase is “no money in the till.” The noun “till” here is spelled with a double “l.”

The word “till” has three principal meanings:

(1) It’s a noun for a cash drawer or money-box.  

(2) It’s a verb meaning to work the soil.

(3) It’s a preposition or conjunction with much the same meaning as “until.”

By the way, the preposition/conjunction is not a shortening or contraction of “until.” And it’s not etymologically correct to spell it with one “l,” though the misspelling is so common that many dictionaries list it separately as a variant. 

In case you’d like to read more on the preposition and conjunction, we wrote a blog post several years ago about the convoluted history of “’til,” “till,” and “until.”

But getting back to your original question, the Oxford English Dictionary has no citations that include the phrase “no money in the till.” (However, it does have a mention of the “no”-less phrase “money in the till,” used in the literal sense.)

We also can’t locate “no money in the till” in slang sources or collections of idioms, but a Google search comes up with more than 900,000 hits.

An unscientific sampling of the Google results suggests that most people use the expression figuratively in the sense of being broke. It’s another way of saying the cupboard is bare or the cookie jar is empty.

The expression is used literally, however, in the earliest example in a Google Timeline search (from the Nov. 12, 1862, issue of the Daily Southern Cross newspaper in Auckland, New Zealand).

In a report about the trial of a man charged with stealing money from the Yew Tree Inn, the innkeeper is quoted as saying: “There was no money in the till when I saw it again.”

By the late 19th century, though, the expression was being used loosely. An April 12, 1882, item in the New York Times includes this quotation:

“Six days before election the Chairman of the General Committee discovers that he has four wards left to ‘take care’ of, and no money in the till.”  

Check out our books about the English language