The Grammarphobia Blog

Big-time spenders

Q: My wife and I wonder where “last of the big-time spenders” comes from. Our parents (who were born in the 1910s and 1920s) used the expression for someone living high on the hog. Can you enlighten us?

A: In a literal sense, the catch phrase “last of the big (or big-time) spenders” means someone who spends lavish amounts of money. But it’s often used humorously or ironically to describe someone who’s stingy.

The Macmillan Dictionary defines “the last of the big spenders” as meaning “someone who spends a lot of money, often in a way that is designed to impress people.”

But, the dictionary adds, “This expression is often used in a humorous way about someone who spends a very small amount of money.”

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1992) describes “last of the big-time spenders” as a “playfully ironic” expression that “has flourished, in UK, since c. 1945.”

The reference book, edited by Paul Beale, further speculates that it was “very prob. adopted from US servicemen c. 1944 and has almost certainly arisen in US during the early 1930s—during the Great Depression.”

However, no citations are given that would back this up. While the expression may indeed date from World War II or before, the earliest published examples we’ve been able to find are from the late 1950s.

This one, for example, appeared in a profile of the actress Joy Lafleur that ran in a 1957 issue of the Canadian magazine Saturday Night: “If you offer to buy Joy a coffee, she’ll wisecrack, ‘No, I’m the last of the big-time spenders.’ ”

The expression has also been used as a song title. 

In late 1960, a comic song entitled “Last of the Big-Time Spenders,” by Cornbread and the Biscuits, appeared on Billboard magazine’s “Hot Hundred” chart.

More recently, the title was given to a poignant ballad written by Billy Joel and recorded on his album Streetlife Serenade (1974).

The shorter expression “big-time spender” is probably a conflation of two others—the adjective “big-time” and the noun phrase “big spender,” both of which appeared in the early 20th century.

The adjective “big-time,” meaning significant or impressive, may be a coinage from vaudeville days, when the major theater circuits were referred to as “the big time.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the adjectival usage is from 1914: “They buy and sell for all ‘big time’ acts and all ‘big time’ theaters.”

The show-biz newspaper Variety is often credited with this usage. A 1927 article in Vanity Fair, for example, said:

“For the vaudeville branch of the show business Variety coined such famous colloquialisms as ‘Big Time’ and ‘Small Time,’ differentiating the first rate circuits from the second rate.”

As for “big spender,” the earliest example we’ve found is from an article about the gambling industry that ran in the December 1907 issue of the journal the Scrap Book:

“With the typical big spender and plunger, it is either his way of taking his fun or he is well able to take care of himself. The real problem is the poor little piker.”

After this, uses of “big spender” became extremely common.

In 1909, for example, Moody’s Magazine said of the financier Henry Keep: “He was never a big spender according to the Wall Street interpretation of the term, and when he died in 1869, he left his family a fortune of over four million dollars.”

And in June 1910, according to Congressional records, an Illinois cattle farmer named Daniel L. Keleher testified before  a Senate committee on wages and commodities prices:

“I am not what might be called a big spender and have always made it a point to have something, thank God, for a rainy day.”

Today, many people associate the noun phrase “big spender” with the song of that title, in the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.

Here are a couple of stanzas from the song, which was a hit record for Peggy Lee in 1966 and for Shirley Bassey in 1967:

The minute you walked in the joint
I could see you were a man of distinction,
a real big spender.
Good looking, so refined,
Say, wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?

So let me get right to the point.
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.
Hey, big spender, spend
A little time with me.

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