The Grammarphobia Blog

Was ‘pin money’ really for pins?

Q: An article in the Guardian about sexism in the workplace says, “Women are no longer routinely told to their faces that they’re only working for ‘pin money,’ that they should be ashamed of taking work from men with families to feed.” Where does the term “pin money” come from? Did it once refer literally to real pins?

A: No, “pin money” was never about pins in the ordinary sense of the word. The use of “pin” in this 17th-century expression makes it sound more demeaning than it actually was.

Today “pin money” simply means a trivial amount of money, perhaps enough for incidentals. And since the days of the Suffragists, it’s been used in a belittling way to demean the wages of working women.

But you’re asking about the historical meaning of “pin money,” which in its earliest sense meant “a (usually annual) sum allotted to a woman for clothing and other personal expenses; esp. such an allowance provided for a wife’s private expenditure,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary.

The phrase was first recorded, the OED says, in a suit brought against Lord Leigh by Lady Leigh in 1674: “On difference between him and his lady about settlement of 200 l. [pounds] per annum, pin-mony” (from a document later collected in the legal digest English Reports in Law and Equity, 1908).

The dictionary’s second citation clearly demonstrates that “pin money” wasn’t about pins. In a scene from John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Relapse; or, Virtue in Danger, first performed in 1696, a young heiress and her nurse discuss the lady’s upcoming nuptials (we’re expanding the dialogue here):

Miss Hoyden: For this I must say for my Lord … he’s as free as an open House at Christmas. For this very Morning, he told me, I shou’d have two hundred a Year to buy Pins. Now, Nurse, if he gives me two hundred a Year to buy Pins; What do you think he’ll give me to buy fine Petticoats?

Nurse: A, my dearest. … These Londoners have got a Gibberidge [gibberish] with ’em, would confound a Gypsey. That which they call Pin-money, is to buy their Wives every thing in the varsal [whole] World, down to their very shoe-tyes: Nay, I have heard Folks say, That some Ladies, if they will have Gallants, as they call ’um; are forc’t to find them out of their Pin-money too.

We can’t resist adding this example from our own reading. Near the end of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mrs. Bennet congratulates her daughter Elizabeth, newly engaged to Mr. Darcy:

“Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin money, what jewels, what carriages you will have!”

What did pins have to do with a woman’s personal expenses?

Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary, says the “pin” here originally referred to a jeweled or ornamental fastener, and denoted a wife’s clothing and other personal expenses.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, raises an interesting possibility: the French word for “pins,” épingles, had long been used in a related sense.

In 15th-century France the plural épingles meant a “gift given to a woman on completion of a business transaction with her husband.” And in the mid-17th-century the French used it to mean “money given to a woman in recognition of some service she has rendered.”

In English, the plural “pins” was used similarly in the 16th century, a century before the expression “pin money” was recorded in OED citations.

This example appears in a will made in 1542 by John Nevile, Lord Latimer: “I give my said doughter Margarett my lease of the parsonadge of Kirkdall Churche … to by her pynnes withal” (from Testamenta Eboracensia, Vol. VI, 1902, a selection of wills registered in York).

And in 1640, Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, made this legacy: “Which Rent I haue bestowed on my daughter Mary to buy her pins” (from the earl’s diaries, autobiographical notes, and other writings, published as The Lismore Papers in 1886).

As you can see, the plural “pins” had a special meaning—a woman’s expenses—before “pin money” was first used to mean her personal funds.

And, as the dictionary’s citations show, the money involved (whether referred to as “pins” or “pin money”) was often considerable and was taken very seriously by the wealthy—and their lawyers.

This quotation is from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (Vol. II, 1766): “If she has any pinmoney or separate maintenance, it is said she may dispose of her savings thereout by testament, without the control of her husband.”

The legal encyclopedia Halsbury’s Laws of England has this historical note in a 1979 edition, “Pin money was … usually provided for in a settlement by a yearly rent charge on the husband’s real estate.”

And in his book Road to Divorce: England, 1530-1987, Lawrence Stone writes: “By the terms of a divorce bill, the wife forfeited claim to a return of her marriage portion, and also to her pin-money.”

This meaning of “pin money” is described by the OED as “historical,” meaning that it’s a usage of the past. It faded away toward the end of the 19th century.

But the phrase survives, according to the OED, in an “extended use” that developed in the early 1700s: “a trivial amount of money; (also) spending money, esp. for inessential items and incidental expenses.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, dated 1702, is from A Compleat History of Europe, a multi-volume work by the Welsh writer David Jones: “I am ashamed to name for what a Pin Money his Books were sold.”

That extended sense is now the usual one, as seen in this more recent OED example: “That’s pin money for a company of Sears’ size, but every little bit helps these days” (Toronto Globe & Mail, Nov. 14, 1992).

The OED has no separate entry for a more specific, derogatory use of “pin money” that developed around the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, “pin money” was used to trivialize the earnings of working women as merely incidental to a family’s support.

For example, the phrase “pin-money clerk” was used to mean a woman who supposedly did office work to provide herself with trifles, not because she had to earn a living. The term cropped up during a time when Suffragists were campaigning not only for votes for women, but for wider employment of women.

In January 1912 a British quarterly, the Living Age, ran an article deploring the “disastrous” economic effects of Suffragists who encouraged more women to work outside the home: “The ‘pin-money clerk’ is blamed for the lowering of wage that cheap female labor has been responsible for in the clerical market.”

This notion was so deeply engrained that in November 1929, Britain’s Minister for Employment, J. H. Thomas, delivered what was later described as his “pin money speech.”

“It is not only uneconomic and unfair, but against the nation’s interests for women to work for what they call pin money, and deprive other people, of legitimate work,” he said. (The remark was reported in newspapers in Britain, Australia, and the US.)

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