What is the etymology of the phrasal verb plough back which Macmillan Dictionary defines as

plough back: to put any profits made by a business back into it in order to make it more successful
e.g., All the money we raise is ploughed back into our work.

Collins Dictionary lists the one word spelling, ploughback, and its American equivalent plowback

When and how did this expression first arise in the world of finance?

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    I imagine in originated in agriculture, where to plough a crop back means to turn over a growing crop and mix it in the soil, in order to improve the soil's quality – blgt Nov 17 '14 at 11:17
  • @blgt Thanks for your explanation, it's useful, I'd guessed it derives from agriculture but nowadays its chief meaning is to reinvest profits. I was wondering when it was first used in the field of business (no pun intended). – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 '14 at 11:47
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    How about "seed money"? When you harvest something like grain (or other things, like potatoes) you need to replant some for next year's crop. I'd guess the etymology is prehistoric, certainly pre-English. – ChrisW Nov 17 '14 at 14:06
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    Money, effort and sweat are ploughed into the ground metaphorically, as manure might be literally ploughed in to improve the soil. Some nitrogen-fixing crops like clover may be grown specifically to be ploughed in, as they improve the soil. – Ben Nov 17 '14 at 14:19
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    You would particularly plough back a nitrogen-fixing crop, such as a legume, in the hope that next year's increased yield of a higher value crop would more than make up for the lost value this year. – richardb Nov 17 '14 at 16:56


A related phrase is to plough money into an investment.

The OED has to plough into meaning "To embed or bury in soil, etc.; fig. to invest (money, esp. a large amount) into an enterprise or business", their first three uses are:

1854 H. D. Thoreau Walden 8 The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.
1895 B. Sedgwick in Westm. Gaz. 12 Sept. 4/3 He ploughed his capital into the land, and it never came out.
1945 N.Y. Times 16 Jan. 12/1 L. P. Sharples..declared that it was important for the municipalities to plow money into airparks and small strips near the center of their communities.

Ploughing back is simply re-investing in a similar way that ploughing was investing in the first place.

Here's a plowed money from The Financial World of August 29, 1921 (p.328):

The receivers plowed money into the property and thereby brought the ratio down to a very low level, which may be taken as the real normal ratio, or around 34%.

Plough back

The OED has a literal use of plough back from 1864 ("To plough plant material into (an area of ground) to enrich the soil; to plough in (plant material)") from 1864 and a figurative one ("To invest (income or profit) back into the enterprise producing it") from 1912:

1912 N.Y. Times 10 July 12/3 The management did not embrace the first opportunity to increase the payment on its shares. Instead, the surplus was plowed back into the property, as railroad men say.

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    I was asking myself why the expression is plough back and not into. Thank you for clearing up the mystery. – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 '14 at 14:31

Plough back earnings/profits ( or US spelling is plow back):

  • to plough back profits into the company to invest the profits in the business (and not pay them out as dividends to the shareholders) by using them to buy new equipment or to create new products

As noted the origin of the expression is mutated from the agriculture world, According to Ngram the expression was used mainly from the 30s ( apparently following the Great Depression), but its usage has decreased from the 80s/90s probably replaced by the more common 'reinvest'.

Ngram chart plotting the rise and fall of "plough back"

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