When people have no money with them they usually use the expression "I'm broke"

Does anyone know how this originated?


Broke is an old form, and nowadays informal, use of broken. If we look in the OED we can see that one of the meanings of break is:

11a. To ruin financially, make bankrupt (a person or bank).

[First recorded in the 17th century.]

11b. To become bankrupt, to ‘fail’ (commercially).

[First recorded in Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice Act III, sc.1).]

he cannot choose but break.

The definition of broken with the meaning of having no money in the OED is:

Reduced or shattered in worldly estate, financially ruined; having failed in business, bankrupt.

[First occurrence of broken in this sense is recorded in 1593.]

(Shakes. Rich. II, ii. i. 257 The Kings growne bankrupt like a broken man.)

The first occurrence of broke is recorded in 1665:

(Pepys Diary 6 July (1895) V. 6 It seems some of his creditors have taken notice of it, and he was like to be broke yesterday in his absence.)

  • Can you link to or provide the text of the earlier occurrences--especially the Merchant of Venice? – Callithumpian May 5 '12 at 13:59
  • @Callithumpian: no access to OED online but Shakespeare's quotes are all easily available on the web. I've added the one to the Merchant of Venice. – None May 5 '12 at 15:10
  • Pepys' Diary covers 1660 to 1669 (consistent with 1665); why does the quote show "(1895)"? – James Waldby - jwpat7 Jun 19 '12 at 2:31
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    @jwpat7: The OED shows the date of publication of the edition quoted, where it is significantly different from the date of composition. Pepys wrote his diary in a private shorthand that was not decoded until the 19th century. The edition referred to must be the one by Henry Wheatley published in 1893–9. (The online OED now refers to the 1972–83 edition by Latham and Matthews.) – Gareth Rees Jul 31 '12 at 20:43

I suggest you check the expression here and you will get the following result:

past tense and obsolete pp. of break (variant of broken); extension to "insolvent" is first recorded 1716 (broken, in this sense, is attested from 1590s). By coincidence, O.E. cognate broc meant, in addition to "that which breaks," "affliction, misery;" but that sense died out long before the current one began.


The origin of the word "broke" as in extension to "insolvent" or loss of all assets, is most likely the Old Norse word "brok", meaning men's underwear.

In the early medieval period, fallen soldiers were left on the battlefield in their underwear, after the victors had stripped them of all assets. This was described in the Norwegian text "Kings Mirror" from app. 1250 a.d.

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    This sounds like folk etymology, and your source does not appear to support your claim. As generally-accepted references (cited above) disagree with your claim, you should make more of an effort to support it. (As it is, I'm somewhat concerned that you're making a joke at our expense.) – Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 12:57

I have heard and I don't remember where that there used to be tokens in reference to money when Banks were first started and when you no longer had money in the bank your token was broken, in essence you were broke. I don't remember where I heard this and I have never found it since lol

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