On Wikipedia we read:

dirty money: (idiomatic) Money that is illegally gained, illegally transferred or illegally utilized. Especially money gained through forgery, bribery, or thievery.

Is there a precise origin of the idiom "dirty money"? Why has the word "dirty" replaced "illegal"? (perhaps because an author has used it an important novel?)

4 Answers 4


The OED specifically traces the term "dirty money" to a source over a century old:

dirty money (n.)
1897 S. Webb & B. Webb Industr. Democracy I. 313 When any class of work involves special unpleasantness or injury to clothing, ‘black money’ or ‘dirty money’ is sometimes stipulated for.
1960 Sunday Express 14 Aug. 1/1, 1,100 dockers‥are claiming ‘dirty money’ for handling a cargo of red oxide.

Yet for some time, dirty has been applied to more than our dirty socks, or a muddy shirt. Dirty has been used to convey sullied, tainted, impure, corrupt, illicit, immoral, etc.

The OED lists such nuances among its several meanings for dirty:

2a. Morally unclean or impure; ‘smutty’. Spec. dirty book, a pornographic book; so dirty bookshop; dirty joke, dirty story, a ‘smutty’ joke or story; dirty weekend, a sexually illicit weekend.
2b. That stains the honour of the persons engaged; dishonourably sordid, base, mean, or corrupt; despicable.
1764 Pulteney in Beatson Nav. & Mil. Mem. (1790) I. 26 Some Ministers‥cannot do their dirty work without them.

With that kind of heritage for the word dirty, it's not a long leap to apply the word dirty to ill-gotten funds.

As a side note, in addition to dirty money, the OED doesn't forget or neglect dirty pool, dirty words, dirty tricks, and dirty old men.

  • Your "not a long leap ... OED specifically ..." wording is misleading because the two quotes refer not to "ill-gotten funds" but instead to hazard pay, that is, extra reimbursement for certain jobs. Apr 9, 2012 at 19:11
  • @jwpat7: True. Astute observation. Problem now fixed.
    – J.R.
    Apr 9, 2012 at 20:35
  • One notes that "dirty money" as illegal is also specially unpleasant because there is always the risk of being arrested for it.
    – Mary
    Jul 28, 2021 at 0:59

Probably date backs to Tyndale's translation of the Bible in the early 1500s, where aiskhron kerdos (shameful gains) was translated to filthy lucre. The leap from filthy to dirty isn't far at all.


It's a metaphor, or rather a Metaphor Theme.


Such a theme licenses reference to anything considered "BAD" by calling it "DIRTY" (somehow), and also licenses reference to anything considered "GOOD" by calling it "CLEAN" (somehow).

  • dirty money, filthy mouth, smutty talk, slimy morals, spotty record, ...
  • clean living, well-scrubbed manners, fresh ideas, laundered money, ...

Note that last one: laundered money refers to dirty money that's been cleaned, i.e, made officially acceptable by erasing its dirty origins. Rather like Vespasian's famous remark about the tax on urine, familiar to every school boy: Pecunia non olet.


Thomas Mace, Musick's Monument (1676): "And now again methinks I see some of you tossing up your caps and crying aloud, "we will have an organ, and an organist too; 'tis but laying out a little dirty money." (Pt. 1, p. 12)

  • +1 This is an interesting find. A search of Early English Books Online yields three texts of "dirty money" from the seventeenth century: the one you cite from 1676; The False Count, by Aphra Behn (1682); and The Atheist by Thomas Otway (1684). It might be worthwhile to examine whether all three use "dirty money" in the same sense.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 18, 2020 at 6:33

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