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Thinking of how I've finally paid my loan, I told myself that from now on, I'll get extra "free cash" each month. But this idiom always made me curious. The fact that both words contradict each other gives it quite a comical effect, to which it is often used. How and when did the idiom "free cash" come to be?

EDIT: It seems one corner case is not addressed by the actual answers. if the terms is related to taking money from an ATM or taking a loan without interest, why does some comics or cartoon character use the idiom when finding some money that they didn't earn (i.e. found on the street, in the house of the neighbour, given as a reward,...). Unfortunately my foggy memory can't replace it in context.

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Thanks @RegDiwght, next time I'll try to be more awake before posting a question/answer. –  Eldroß Nov 19 '10 at 8:13
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Why do the words contradict each other? –  ShreevatsaR Nov 19 '10 at 8:25
    
@ShreevatsaR You've got a good point. In my mind, something you got for free, is something you didn't use cash for it. So I made the shortcut that because those something are differents, the means to earn those something couldn't be associated. I feel quite silly now... –  Eldroß Nov 19 '10 at 8:43
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Free in this context refers to associated charges. Examples:

  • Some ATMs charge a fee or commission for withdrawing cash; others don't charge and give you your cash free of charge.
  • A loan with zero interest would be considered free money; a loan at a small rate of interest could be considered cheap money.

See here for a definition of cheap money, for example.


Answer to edit in the question: in the example of a cartoon character who finds some money on the street the meaning is still the same, the money is free in the sense that the character didn't have to do anything to get it. I would not consider the case of a reward to be free, since they've done something to earn the money – it's a payment rather than a gift, if you will.

Maybe slightly related: see freeloader (Wiktionary).

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Even worse, I've seen ATM screens blinking "FREE CASH." To your average pedant-on-the-street, it's up there with "Greengrocer's." –  PyroTyger Nov 19 '10 at 9:53
    
didn't noticed that you edited your answer, thanks. :) –  Eldroß Dec 9 '10 at 10:28
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I think of 'free cash' as money that is not already obligated to something. For example, I can spend it on what I want because I do not need it for something like the rent or phone bill (or loan).

It is free in the sense that it is not tied to something else and can be used 'freely'.

Think open-source: "free as in freedom, not free money".

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