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Wondering why make ends meet means to have enough money to live on. I am interested in knowing the origin of the idiom. Can anyone help me on this?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I have found several versions of its origin: you get to choose! None is confirmed.

  1. The origin is from sailing ships with lots of masts. Some were attached by ropes that moved. Some were hung with ropes that were permanent. When the lower ropes broke, the Captain would tell the men to pull the ropes together, splice them to get the ends to meeet again, pull and tug on the canvas, so that the masts would be productive for sailing again.

  2. Make ends meet - budget tightly - the metaphor was originally to do with wearing a shorter (tighter) belt presumably because you have been frugal, and are eating less, your belt would more easily fasten.

  3. It’s old enough that it has centuries ago become an idiom, a turn of phrase that we don’t usually stop to think about at all, though we understand immediately that to make ends meet is to have enough money to live on. The oldest example I can find is from Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England of about 1661: “Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring only to make both ends meet; and as for that little that lapped over he gave it to pious uses”, but the fact that Fuller is making a little joke using it suggests he already knew of it as a set phrase.

  4. Where it comes from is hard to be sure about. It’s often said that it’s from bookkeeping, in which the total at the bottom (“end”) of the column of income must at least match that at the bottom of the expenditure column if one is not to be living beyond one’s income. The phrase is also known in the form to make both ends of the year meet, which might strengthen that connection if we think of the usual end-of-year accounting, except that that form isn’t the original one and wasn’t recorded until Tobias Smollett used it in Roderick Random in 1748.

I would go with 1 or 2.

Credits to JaneB and Robert Priddy for original research. I verified all the references before posting.

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The answer is google-able, in fact. In this piece, Michael Quinion says it might be from book-keeping, where the the sum at the end (bottom) of two columns must be tallied.

In any case the origin is not precisely known.

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The OED's earliest citation is from the mid-seventeenth century:

Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring onely to make both ends meet.

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3  
That does not explain the origin, nor does it even give a source for the citation. –  Robusto May 5 '12 at 19:41
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No, but it's surely a contribution to which others can no doubt add. –  Barrie England May 5 '12 at 19:55
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A reference from Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England of about 1661: “Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring only to make both ends meet; and as for that little that lapped over he gave it to pious uses”, but the fact that Fuller is making a little joke using it suggests he already knew of it as a set phrase. –  Fr0zenFyr May 5 '12 at 20:08
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Barrie, all I'm saying is that if you've gone to the trouble of giving a citation, it wouldn't be that much more effort to give the source the OED would have listed. –  Robusto May 5 '12 at 20:14
    
Would anyone be all that interested, and would it have made any difference, if I'd said the author was Thomas Fuller? –  Barrie England May 5 '12 at 20:55

This is a long response....and also under construction but I hope it is pointing in the right direction.

The question is "Wondering why make ends meet means to have enough money to live on."

I was wondering the exact same thing recently so I'd like to make a contribution to the discussion. It seems no one knows for definite — not even the great OED.

The answers so far refer to: (a) accounting — making the financial ends of the year meet [personally I don't get that one] (b)sailing ships — the ends of two ropes meeting, a rope that is deployed to safeguard the masts and that the survival of the ship may therefore depend on (c)economics — frugality leads to a smaller girth and the two ends of your belt would more easily fasten.

I googled "make ends meet"and I also looked at the site http://www.phrases.org.uk/ which entertained me with ECONOMICS FOR SAUSAGE MAKERS - [make ends meat]. That's a funny take for sure.

Etymology can be funny. And serious. Take "silly". That comes from an old Germanic word for "blessed". The link is innocent — now it kinda makes sense, no?

Anyway, there seems to me to be three types of etymology. 1. Scholarly etymology 2. Folk etymology 3. Spurious etymology.

On this site I'm guessing that people are only interested in No. 1. As am I. But scholarly etymology does not always yield concrete uncontroversial answers. Sometimes the historical documentation simply doesn't exist. Or maybe has not yet been uncovered. In such cases "origin unknown, many guesses" is apt.

So, here is my contribution. Each word in the phrase "make ends meet" has more that one meaning.

Make: OED records this many meanings....

Ends: OED records this many meanings....

"Meet": Meet, meat, mete.

Meet: OED records this many meanings....

Meat: OED records this many meanings....

Mete: OED records this many meanings....

I will come back to this with my research and findings within two days. I.e. before 5 September. Looking forward to comments of the civilized variety.

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It's been about 3 fortnights since you posted that you will update your answer..!! now that's silly or is it "blessed"?!! :P –  Fr0zenFyr Oct 14 '13 at 5:10

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 2 '13 at 22:35

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