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I recently heard somebody say that they "gave at the office" in response to a request from some charity. It also seems to have a more general usage when refusing a request for help of any kind. What exactly does this phrase mean, and what is its etymology? Is it a very recent saying?

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Jez, has someone hijacked your account? It means that they have already given money, when they were at the the office. It's normal English, if somewhat truncated. It's not an idiom. –  Matt Эллен Jul 12 '12 at 8:51
    
Sex appeal: If you gave at home, you don't have to give at the office. –  Barrie England Jul 12 '12 at 9:04
    
@MattЭллен heh, well I vaguely remember hearing it before, but I certainly haven't heard it much and don't know how old it is. –  Jez Jul 12 '12 at 9:06
    
@Matt: It's often used idiomatically, though. Most of the time when I've heard it, I doubt those people actually gave at the office, and there's a strong likelihood that they may not have even given at all. That said, I won't dispute this is still a very general reference question. –  J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 9:08
    
@J.R. If it's gen. ref., please provide an easy-to-find reference as to the history of the phrase. –  Jez Jul 12 '12 at 9:16

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The phrase originated from the United Way's workplace giving programs. Many people actually did donate to charity at the office and the point was that the person had already donated to charity as much as they felt that they should donate, and thus there was no reason to ask them to donate more money. However, it is now generally considered a sarcastic way of saying "Go away, I'm not going to donate any money."

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This page says that United Way has a 35 year history of workplace giving programs; is it reasonable to deduce, then, that this phrase started to become popular around about 1980? –  Jez Jul 12 '12 at 9:18
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Yes and no. But United Way workplace giving actually dates back to at least 1948. –  David Schwartz Jul 12 '12 at 9:32
    
@Jez: I think the United Way's workplace giving programs stretch back much further than that; the web page that you linked to refers to "United Way of the National Capital Area" which I believe is a local chapter of the charity. UW itself goes back more than 100 years. I'm not sure when they started workplace donation programs, or how long after that it took for the phrase to come into vogue. –  J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 9:38
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A book by this title was published in 1971. I'm guessing the expression was already entrenched in the vernacular by the time the book was given its title. That, along with David's Ngram, would lead me to believe that the oft-heard refrain took on its "idiomatic" meaning during the 1960s. This would make sense, considering Zogby and countless other Boy Scouts repeatedly heard the phrase used in the late 1950s when they were soliciting door-to-door. –  J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 9:49
    
It's also the title of an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1973. –  Hugo Jul 17 '12 at 20:04

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