6

I am referring to the idiomatic expression “I don’t buy it” meaning I don’t think it is true. This metaphorical usage of the verb buy appears to be from the 1920s according to Etymonline:

Meaning “believe, accept as true” is attested by 1926.

I couldn’t find any evidence to support this usage in the early decades of the 20th century, and looking at Google Books it appears the expression actually took off from the ’60s.

My questions are:

  • When did the above sense of the verb “buy” actually come into use?
  • Is its meaning origin somewhat connected to the spread of TV commercials from the ’50s or ’60s?
  • Was it originally an AmE or a BrE expression?

4 Answers 4

12

The OED has examples from 1926, 1944, 1949, 1951, and 1952.

The 1926 example is from E. Wallace, More Educated Evans: "'It's rather early in the day for fairy-tales,’ he said, ‘but I'll buy this one.’"

It describes the usage as "Chiefly U.S.".

8
  • 10
    I'm tempted to wonder whether there's ever been any confusion between OK, I'll bite (I think you're trying to trap me, but I will cautiously allow you to continue), and OK, I'll buy it (What you say sounds "reasonable" to me). Jun 6, 2018 at 15:44
  • 3
    And, possibly related, the OED has, for sell, "To make (someone) enthusiastic about, or convinced of the worth of, something. Frequently pass. colloq. (orig. U.S.)." The first example, from 1918, "The writer believes it is possible to finally ‘sell’ the Teutons on the advantages of peace as compared with war." Jun 6, 2018 at 18:10
  • My thinking - with no direct evidence is that it relates to traveling salesmen from the US old West. One of the first ones to get fined and discredited was in 1917, Stanley's Snake Oil Jun 8, 2018 at 20:12
  • In order to buy something it needs to be sold to you, does it not? My understanding was always that you'd buy a story because the story was sold (as in, pitched, described, told, in an attempt to prove credibility and veracity).
    – psosuna
    Jun 8, 2018 at 20:12
  • @psosuna - I agree that the “you sell and I buy it” story is quite straightforward, in other languages though, they use different expressions. For instance in French they say “I don’t walk it” or in Italian, “I don’t drink it”.
    – user 66974
    Jun 9, 2018 at 5:44
2
+100

I am referring to the idiomatic expression “I don’t buy it” meaning I don’t think it is true.

The earliest relevant example of similar usage I ran across on google books was this tidbit from Buds and Blossoms of Piety, With Some Fruit of the Spirit of Love: and Directions to the Divine Wisdom, The Fourth Edition, by Benjamin Antrobus (an early Quaker who preached and was persecuted and imprisoned in London), published in London in the year MDCCXLIII (1743).

This couplet is said to be from a letter to the author while in prison, from someone known as W.L.:

Let no Dove-sellers in the Temple dwell, There's Room to buy the Truth, but not to sell.

Talk English alludes to the implied contractual or transactional context to be found in the phrase, I don't buy it:

if you "don't buy it," then you are not agreeing.

As in business transactions a sale isn't finalized until both parties agree on the price or terms, likewise a truth or fact presented isn't 'bought' (or sold, either) unless the audience and presenter are in agreement.

  • Go and sell them the idea.

  • Okay, but what if they don't buy it?

Corroborating the transactional context of the term "buy", are the many references to the act of reaching agreement on various deals for merchandise or favors to be found within the volumes of Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason: And Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Present Time ... from the Ninth Year of the Reign of King Henry, the Second, A.D.1163, to ... [George IV, A.D.1820] (also easily referenced on Google Books). For example (in volume 19, dated 1816):

"Let us sell him the [tobacco] box, may-be he will [agree to] buy it4."

Also, in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1773, one of the several meanings for agree:

  1. to settle a price between buyer and seller.

In conclusion, "I don't buy it" means:

  • "I disagree."

...and a reasonable form of the same idiom (but with opposite meaning, to agree -- that is, "to buy", with respect to Truth) may be traced as far back as 1743, to Benjamin Antrobus.

1

The construction is relatively recent:

OED:

6b. transitive. colloquial (originally and chiefly U.S.). To accept the truth of (a statement, theory, etc.); to believe; to approve of (something). Chiefly in negative constructions, e.g. I don’t buy it.

1944 Amer. Speech 19 72/1 If the work is perfect, the inspector buys it... In the drilling departments, one might hear a worker say, ‘I am waiting for the company to buy this hole.’

1949 Time 2 May 8/1 After talking it over with the President..Secretary Johnson bought the Air Force point of view.

1951 I. Shaw Troubled Air xiii. 213 People feel that the best way to prove how loyal they are is to be as nasty..as they know how, and I'm not buying any of that.

It is the use of the continuous to express the immediate future and an extension to the obvious meaning of “to buy = to [be willing to] pay money in order to possess something” and thus, in the positive, the idea of something being satisfactory.

Earlier, there was a British English use, albeit with a slightly different meaning:

6.a. transitive. British colloquial. To be prepared to listen to (a story, explanation, etc.). Originally and chiefly in I'll buy it: ‘I'll accept your explanation’; (contextually, in reply to a question, riddle, etc.) ‘I give up’; ‘I don't know, but tell me the answer’.

1919 A. Greening Better Yarn xiv. 221 ‘Suppose I went into the grocer's with a bob, and came out with fifteen eggs, what would they be?’ ‘Go ahead.., I'll buy it; what would they be?’ ‘Rotten!’

1926 E. Wallace More Educated Evans vi. 139 ‘It's rather early in the day for fairy-tales,’ he said, ‘but I'll buy this one.’

Here the speaker is willing to pay money in order to hear the answer. However, the answer is not guaranteed to be correct or acceptable.

0

Proverbs 23:23 "Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding." (KJV; 1604 commissioned; 1611 printed)

This is logically one origin, in print, of valuing the "truth", and not being bribed to tell a lie. Thus regarding a "lie": "I don't buy it".

2
  • You can imply it but it doesn't actually use the phrase. May 19, 2023 at 5:38
  • Exactly! Thank you.
    – Timothy
    May 22, 2023 at 15:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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