Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I was listening to John Lennon's song "Gimme Some Truth" just now, and in it there's a recurring line "money for rope."

I never thought about it much before, but it strikes me this has to be some kind of aphorism or at least a familiar idiom somewhere. Does anyone know what it means and where it comes from? I've found some things on the Web that say it refers to the rope trade, and driving a bad bargain, etc., but none of these seem entirely convincing. Or at least they left me feeling unsatisfied.

Does anyone have a clear line on this one?

share|improve this question

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It is a common expression in England and means easily earned or easily obtained money, with the suggestion of having sold something that is normally considered worthless or of low value.

Many idiomatic English expressions seem to have their origins in the days of wind-powered seafaring.

Rope made from hemp had a limited lifetime. When it wore out it was picked apart and recycled. It was used for caulking. Rope fibres (known as oakum) were hammered into the seams between planks of a ship and hot pitch was poured over it. This was done to waterproof the ship. Of course you got money for the old rope. The phrase came to mean money for anything (seemingly) worthless.

From localhistories.org

There’s a suggestion that “money for old rope” dates back to the days of public executions in England (hangings). The hangman was responsible for his rope and was obliged by law to keep it. However, macabre souvenir hunters were willing to pay a good price for pieces of a used noose, so the hangman would cut it up into pieces and sell it, hence the phrase.

From when we were kids

THE SAYING MONEY FOR OLD ROPE IS DERIVED FROM DAYS IN THE WORKHOUSE, WORKERS WHERE GIVEN DAMAGED, AND USED ROPE TO PICK INTO STRANDS WHICH WOULD THEN BE RE SPUN INTO NEW ROPE, THEY WOULD EARN JUST ENOUGH MONEY FOR A MEAL, HENCE THE SAYING "MONEY FOR OLD ROPE"

From Answers.com

I don't know whether there is much truth in the above. Picking apart old rope was apparently work given to people in the workhouse or in foundlings homes at the end of the 18th Century - At least according to author Bernard Cornwell - who gives the impression of having researched his subjects well.

Others say the expression is not recorded before the mid-20th Century.

share|improve this answer
    
This reminds me of a saying invented for the "New Expressions" segment of Demetri Martin's show Important Things: sold the pie shack. It appears in this video clip on Comedy Central's website. –  Mitch Schwartz Dec 16 '10 at 1:33
    
Logically, the workers (or convicts) who were picking oakum (I believe that's the technical term) wouldn't suit this term at all, since they were working hard for a pittance. The people (shipowners?) who provided the raw material, on the other hand, were literally getting good money for old rope. –  TimLymington Mar 14 '12 at 12:26

Could it be a reference to the term "New money for old rope?" That means getting someone to pay again for something they already have.

Not familiar with the song, though.

share|improve this answer

"Money for old rope" dates back to the time of sailing ships when old rope was picked apart by children and women and added to tar to make caulking for the decks on the ships.

share|improve this answer
2  
Do you have any sources? –  Daniel Mar 14 '12 at 12:15

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 14 '12 at 13:20

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.