I found the phrase, “pull away the punch bowl out of X” and “leave the punch bawl in X” in the following sentence of Time’ magazine’s article (May 17) titled “Is the Fed to blame for JPMorgan’s $2 bill blow-up”:

“It is said that the job of a central bank is to *pull away the punch bowl before it gets out of hand. While the Fed pays close attention to inflation, it has left the punch bowl out in the chase for risk assets and is contemplating spiking it even further.”

When I consulted the usage of “punch-bowl” with Oxford Advanced Learners’ English Dictionary, it simply states its definition as ‘a bowl in which punch is served.’ There was no mention about its idioms. The definition was almost same with other English dictionaries at hand.

I assume “punch bowl” here signifies the merit, benefit, advantage, offer, and anything people are attracted to. Am I right?

Are “Pull away the punch bowl from somebody’s hand” and “Leave punch bawl out there” idioms? If not, are phrases using “Punch bowl” as a metaphor in such way frequently observed in writings and daily conversation?

  • 1
    I love your questions. :) May 18, 2012 at 20:54
  • @Yoichi Oishi: "out of hand" in your example phrase means "out of control" rather than removing something from their hand. The image is of someone removing the punch bowl from the table.
    – horatio
    May 18, 2012 at 21:34
  • 'bawl' looks like a typo. Should be 'bowl' everywhere.
    – Mitch
    May 18, 2012 at 22:29

2 Answers 2


The Time quote is sloppy. William McChesney Martin, Chairman of the Federal Reserve in the 1950s and 1960s, is quoted— in Time— as saying "I’m the fellow who takes away the punch bowl just when the party is getting good." (according to http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/10/21/take-punch-bowl/ )

Punch, at least the punch one would serve in the U.S. at parties for adults, is often made with bourbon or rum. So according to Martin, the role of the central bank is to restrict the money supply to slow growth just as the economy starts booming (to everyone's annoyance), just as one might take away the alcohol just as a party begins to rock (to everyone's annoyance).

It is not a "general purpose idiom," but the reference is well-understood in financial or economic circles because another chairman, Alan Greenspan, used it in a speech more recently.

  • So ‘Punch’ means the financial stimulus, hyped money supply here? What is the plain or straight word for the punch in terms of financial policy? May 19, 2012 at 1:28
  • The only "punch" the Federal Reserve has direct influence over is the money supply (econlib.org/library/Enc/MoneySupply.html ). They could "take it away," for example, by raising the interest rate they charged for the loans they make to banks, or by increasing the reserve ratio for depositary institutions.
    – choster
    May 19, 2012 at 2:22

In this case, "Punch Bowl" refers specifically to the custom of serving punch made with alcohol. Here, the metaphor is for the wild, drunken-like behavior of financial firms as if at a party.

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    But no, I would not say these are established idioms.
    – GEdgar
    May 18, 2012 at 21:00
  • They are not idioms themselves, but they are references to the idiom "spike/spiking the punch" (which means someone has put alcohol in the fruit juice).
    – horatio
    May 18, 2012 at 21:32
  • 1
    I agree this is not a well established idiom. May 18, 2012 at 21:32

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