The phrase "milking it" seems to have originated in the context of finance. According to the OED, "milking" can refer to

The manipulation of funds for (esp. unscrupulous or illicit) financial gain; (more generally) exploitation of resources.

Similarly, given what the physical act of milking some animal is like, it makes sense to think about "milking it" as "getting as much as possible out of a resource."

All of this makes sense. I'm wondering, however, when this idiom started to be used in different contexts. When did it become common to hear "You're really milking that for all its worth" in reference to an injury, for example, or for an emotional slight?

Similarly, which is preferable: "milking it for all its worth" or "milking it for all it's worth"? Should there be a standard, or does it depend on the meaning one wants to convey? I'm inclined to prefer its, as a thing does possess a finite worth (theoretically).

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    Presumably you'd also go for Milk them for all their worth, which again sounds the same as for all they're worth. But don't you have qualms when it comes to Milk her for all her worth? Which by the way gets 340 hits on Google, compared to over 6000 on for all she's worth. Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 18:29
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    I would go with "it's" as the exploded version would be to "milk it for all it is worth." Obviously, we're drawing off the sense of milking a cow and extracting every last drop contained in the udder. Metaphorically, we are squeezing, pulling, and drawing out all the value contained in a situation.
    – The Raven
    Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 18:30
  • Related.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 16:44

5 Answers 5


The OED has its two relevant citations under this definition (10) of the verb 'milk':

Originally in the performing arts: to exploit (a scene, situation, line, etc.) for fullest effect; to elicit a favourable or appreciative reaction from (an audience) and contrive to prolong it as long as possible. Also in extended use.

The two citations are from 1950:

My feeling about the story is that you have got hold of something big, but have not yet milked it for all it is worth.

and 1971:

They milked the applause for all it was worth, then Bart held up his hand again.

As for ‘its’ v. ‘it’s’, it has never occurred to me that it might be anything other than the second, and the two citations support that view.

(Which edition of the OED are you using, ect? I can't find the definition you quote in the online edition which I use at http://www.oed.com/.)

  • The OED online does include the quote above--see definition 5 under the noun form of milking.
    – user10893
    Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 18:03
  • Thank you. A bit of cross-referencing there on the part of the OED might have been helpful. Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 18:54
  • Thanks! I guess I should have looked under "milk" instead of "milking."
    – ect
    Commented Oct 3, 2011 at 17:32
  • OED: II. Senses relating to the extraction of advantage, effect, etc., from a situation. 5.a. transitive. To deprive or defraud [someone of/for something]*, esp. by taking regular amounts over a period of time; to exploit, turn into a source of (frequently illicit) profit, advantage, information, etc.; to extract all possible advantage from. Also (in extended use): to drain away the contents from (in figurative contexts). *?1531 J. Frith *This their paynfull purgatorye..hath of longe tyme but deceaued the people and milked them from their monye.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 13:44

I suspect this slang orginated in argicultural practices, where milking of cows, usually done twice daily, can provide slightly greater yields when performed 3 times daily. You get a bit more milk for a lot more work, so if you're really "milking" that cow, you're doing it to excess, with marginal benefit.


Even outside of the phrase "to milk something for all it's worth," the verb "to milk" has long had the sense of to exploit.

Etymonline.com dates this usage to the 1520s.

In terms of the "its" versus "it's" question, I believe "it's" is more correct, or at least more common. Google shows ~17000 hits with the apostrophe and ~8400 without.

  • Fair enough on the apostrophe, but I will continue to be an apostrophe-less curmudgeon. And you're right about the general sense of exploitation; I, too, looked that up on Etymology Online. I'm wondering more about when the colloquial use specific to some perceived injury started.
    – ect
    Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 17:18
  • I'm with you in principle on the apostrophe, at least for the possessive apostrophe. Still, we don't want to open that up here, do we? Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 18:04
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    I think the google hits for its/it's are distorted, partly because they're homophones, and partly because many people don't know which is possessive and which is a contraction. Although it's less common overall, "her" does occur, and there the difference is nearly 20 to 1 in favour of she's worth. Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 18:33

In the financial sense, to "milk" an operation is to "manage it for cash." That is, squeeze as much cash out of it as possible, while putting as little back in (for maintenance) as necessary.

Normally it's not illegal (some might say that e.g. the resulting laying off of workers is unethical), although it could, of course, cross the line.


The phrase 'milking it' comes from the old legal term 'mulct', a financial penalty or contract signing fee (fine). In David Hume's History of England, in 1529, Parliament granted King Henry VIII a discharge of all his debts, which the King's creditors who had provided the loans 'were well pleased to take the opportunity of mulcting them.' This quotation suggests the meaning 'getting back as much as they can' which is the understanding of the modern phrase 'milking them'

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    OED - Mulct: Etymology: < classical Latin mulcta, multa fine, penalty, of Italic origin (compare Oscan moltam , Umbrian motar ). Compare Middle French, French †mulcte , †multe fine, penalty (1358), Italian multa (14th cent.). Milk: Etymology: Cognate with Old Frisian melok (West Frisian molke ), Middle Dutch melc (Dutch melk ), Old Saxon miluk (Middle Low German melk , melik ), Old High German miluh , milih (Middle High German milich , milch , German Milch ),
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 13:37
  • I'm not the downvoter, but I'm curious to know why you think this is the source of the modern phrase when milking a cow has a much greater apparent relevance. Can you trace its use across a body of literature specifically to "mulct", where people said things like "he's mulcting it for all it's worth" and this gradually was replaced with "he's milking it for all it's worth"? Or are you merely speculating on the basis of the similarity of the words and the plausible connection between the ideas?
    – iconoclast
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 20:46

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