Q: How did the expression “pay your dues” come to mean overcome difficulties to achieve success?
A: To begin at the beginning, the word “due” has referred to a financial or moral debt since it first showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, originally as an adjective, later as a noun, and eventually as an adverb.
English borrowed “due” from the Old French deü, but the ultimate source is the Latin verb dēbēre (to owe), which has also given us the words “debt,” “debit,” and “duty.”
The earliest example for “due” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325, which uses the phrase “dew dett” for a financial debt that is owed.
And the earliest example for “due” used in the moral sense is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a poem by John Gower about the confessions of an ageing lover, which uses the phrase “due love” in reference to something that deserves to be loved.
The noun “due,” which referred to a financial or moral debt when it appeared in the 15th century, has been used in various expressions since then.
Two of them—“give someone his due” (treat him fairly or acknowledge his merits) and “give the devil his due” (acknowledge the good qualities in a bad person)—are in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 1 (1598):
“No, ile giue thee thy due, thou hast paid all there” … “He was neuer yet a breaker of prouerbes: he will giue the diuell his due.”
The earliest examples that we could find for “pay one’s dues” date from the 1600s, when paying dues meant meeting one’s financial or moral obligations.
In The Anatomie of Melancholy (1632), Robert Burton’s advice for coping with depression includes “Give chearfully. Pay thy dues willingly. Be not a slave to thy mony.”
And here’s an example from a 1685 religious tract by John Norris: “For if even when the Laws enforce men to pay their dues to their Ministers, they yet continue so backward in the discharge of them.”
The expression was used in its literal financial or moral sense until the 20th century, when a pair of figurative meanings developed in the US: (1) to suffer the consequences of an act; (2) to undergo hardships before achieving success.
The OED labels these usages slang, but the American version of Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity from the OED) lists them without comment—that is, as standard English.
Oxford Dictionaries has several examples for each of the new usages, including (1): “he had paid his dues to society for his previous convictions” and (2) “this drummer has paid his dues with the best.”
Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online agrees with Oxford Dictionaries and includes the two new senses without comment.
Finally, the use of “due” in referring to points of the compass (the only surviving adverbial sense) showed up in the early 1600s, according to citations in the OED.
The dictionary’s first example is from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (circa 1601): “There lies your way, due West.” We can’t sign off without mentioning another “due” or two.
There’s the adjective meaning expected (“the baby is due in September”), which showed up in the 19th century, and the one meaning proper or adequate (“driving with due care”), which appeared in the 14th century.
Then there’s “due to,” often used to mean “because of.” As we wrote in a 2012 post, it’s widely used but frowned upon by sticklers (who might even say it’s “not due form”).