Q: News reports often refer to progressive proposals to tax the wealthy as “soak the rich” taxes. But why “soak”? If the rich are drenched in wealth, shouldn’t their bank accounts be dried out, not soaked?
A: The use of “soak” in the expression “soak the rich” comes from the slang use of the verb “soak” in the late 19th century to mean overcharge, tax heavily, or extort money.
When the verb showed up in Anglo-Saxon times as socian, it meant (as it does now) to “lie immersed in a liquid for a considerable time, so as to be saturated or permeated with it; to become thoroughly wet or soft in this manner,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first OED example is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies from around 1000: “Dweorge dwostlan weorp on weallende wæter, læt socian on lange” (“Throw pennyroyal in boiling water, letting it soak a long time”).
The verb “soak” has had several other meanings over the years, but we’ll just discuss the relevant ones.
Near the end of the 19th century, according to Oxford citations, “soak” took on the slang sense of to “impose upon (a person, etc.) by an extortionate charge or price; to charge or tax heavily; to borrow or extort money from; to cost a high price.”
The dictionary’s first example is from the New York Dramatic News, Nov. 23, 1895: “This little scheme sometimes … enables the photographer to ‘soak’ them.”
The OED says this sense of “soak” led to the use of “soak-the-rich” as an attributive, or adjectival, phrase “applied to a policy of progressive taxation.” The first citation is from Hell Bent for Election (1935), a critique of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, by James Warburg:
“He thought he was being ‘clever’ when he tried to steal Huey Long’s thunder by suddenly coming out with his ‘soak the rich’ tax message.” The author, a member of the Warburg banking family, had been a financial adviser to Roosevelt before breaking with him over policy disagreements. He rejoined the government when the US went to war in 1941.
The next Oxford example is from a Dec. 14, 1935, article in the Literary Digest by Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s Interior Secretary: “Soak the Rich (Antonym, Soak the Poor)—Newspaperese for a system of taxation founded upon the absurd and revolutionary theory that a man should be assessed taxes in proportion to his ability to pay.” (Ickes was satirizing criticism of the New Deal.)
We suspect that this usage may have been influenced by the use of “soak” a bit earlier in the 19th century to mean punish, especially in the phrase “soak it to (someone),” a variation on “sock it to (someone).”
The first OED citation for “soak” used in the punish sense is from the Columbus (Ohio) Evening Dispatch, July 29, 1892: “To-day’s Washington Post ‘soaks’ it to the Southern Democrats in the House who were so rallied in 1885 in their support of the bill making an appropriation to the New Orleans Exposition, but are now opposed to a similar appropriation for the World’s Fair.”
When “sock it to (someone)” showed up in print 15 years earlier, Oxford says, it meant “to strike, deal a blow to (that person),” as in this entry in an 1877 edition of John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms: “Two loafers are fighting; one of the crowd cries out, ‘Sock it to him.’ ”