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A common idiom in English is that something is done "to the tune of" an amount of money, eg.

The company profited to the tune of $5 million.

This idiom is almost always used with a monetary amount. How did it come to be used this way? and why do we usually use it with money rather than, say, 'eating food to the tune of a 3 course meal'?

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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's a surprisingly old usage. Here's one from 1786 saying a sum of money is to the tune of two millions and a half. Coincidentally, I'm just watching the 1962 remake of Mutiny On The Bounty, where Captain Bligh says it matters to the tune of £1000 a day that breadfruit should arrive in Jamaica as soon as possible. It's set in 1787, so Hollywood got the speech of the times right there.

TheFreeDictionary definition 2 has...

  • a. Concord or agreement; harmony: in tune with the times.
  • b. Archaic Frame of mind; disposition.

I think both those two senses, paricularly the latter, would have made it barely even metaphorical to use "to the tune of" for "about like that" or "of that ilk". Maybe someone can track down a "first recorded use", but I doubt that would represent the coining of the expression.

I suspect shifts in the meaning of "tune" have led to the current situation where OP is not alone in thinking the expression seems a little odd. So now it's thought of as an idiom, we continue to use it for money but don't feel comfortable transferring the meaning to other contexts.

LATER: Here's a usage from 1738 writing of a publication containing 9764 "Questions & Answers" (an early precursor to EL&U!), in which the author mentions an earlier publication with "to the tune of Nine Hundred [Answers]". The referent isn't/wasn't always a sum of money.

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The OED gives two (related) definitions for "to the tune of":

  1. According to the gist of, in accordance with (obs.).
  2. To the amount or sum of. So to some tune (to a considerable extent), etc.

The two are put together as definitions 1a and 1b, and share the same quotations, suggesting that the former gradually evolved into, and was replaced by, the latter. The first few citations provided are:

1607 S. Hieron Wks. I. 405 Singing nothing but to the tune of Judas 'What will ye give me?'

1692 R. L'Estrange Fables ccclvi. (1694) 372 This came to the Bishop's Ear, who presently sent for the Curate, Rattled him to some Tune.

1714 R. Fiddes Pract. Disc. II. 95 This is exactly to the tune of the old popular objection.

1716 M. Davies Athenæ Britannicæ II. 296 To Libel the Bishop‥by exhibiting Articles against him to the Tune of 56.

1723 D. Defoe Hist. Col. Jack (ed. 2) 134 To go over‥into Flanders, to be knock'd on the Head at the Tune of Three and Six-pence a Week.

The first example makes the musical metaphor underlying the phrase fairly explicit. The second uses the phrase to some tune to refer to an extent or amount. The fourth applies the phrase to a number, and the fifth applies it to currency. The progression seems pretty clear to me.

To sum up: "to the tune of" seems to have originally meant the same as the current phrase "along the lines of", i.e., "similar to" or "something like". It's not hard to imagine the thought process behind applying such a phrase to an approximate or estimated number. Although current usage strongly associates the phrase with currency, there's ample historical precedent for phrases like "to the tune of a three-course meal."

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