I recently heard somebody say that they "gave at the office" in response to a request from some charity. It also seems to have a more general usage when refusing a request for help of any kind. What exactly does this phrase mean, and what is its etymology? Is it a very recent saying?

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    Jez, has someone hijacked your account? It means that they have already given money, when they were at the the office. It's normal English, if somewhat truncated. It's not an idiom. – Matt E. Эллен Jul 12 '12 at 8:51
  • Sex appeal: If you gave at home, you don't have to give at the office. – Barrie England Jul 12 '12 at 9:04
  • @MattЭллен heh, well I vaguely remember hearing it before, but I certainly haven't heard it much and don't know how old it is. – Jez Jul 12 '12 at 9:06
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    @Matt: It's often used idiomatically, though. Most of the time when I've heard it, I doubt those people actually gave at the office, and there's a strong likelihood that they may not have even given at all. That said, I won't dispute this is still a very general reference question. – J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 9:08
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    @J.R. If it's gen. ref., please provide an easy-to-find reference as to the history of the phrase. – Jez Jul 12 '12 at 9:16
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The phrase originated from the United Way's workplace giving programs. Many people actually did donate to charity at the office and the point was that the person had already donated to charity as much as they felt that they should donate, and thus there was no reason to ask them to donate more money. However, it is now generally considered a sarcastic way of saying "Go away, I'm not going to donate any money."

  • This page says that United Way has a 35 year history of workplace giving programs; is it reasonable to deduce, then, that this phrase started to become popular around about 1980? – Jez Jul 12 '12 at 9:18
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    Yes and no. But United Way workplace giving actually dates back to at least 1948. – David Schwartz Jul 12 '12 at 9:32
  • @Jez: I think the United Way's workplace giving programs stretch back much further than that; the web page that you linked to refers to "United Way of the National Capital Area" which I believe is a local chapter of the charity. UW itself goes back more than 100 years. I'm not sure when they started workplace donation programs, or how long after that it took for the phrase to come into vogue. – J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 9:38
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    A book by this title was published in 1971. I'm guessing the expression was already entrenched in the vernacular by the time the book was given its title. That, along with David's Ngram, would lead me to believe that the oft-heard refrain took on its "idiomatic" meaning during the 1960s. This would make sense, considering Zogby and countless other Boy Scouts repeatedly heard the phrase used in the late 1950s when they were soliciting door-to-door. – J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 9:49
  • It's also the title of an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1973. – Hugo Jul 17 '12 at 20:04

This expression can be taken in two different ways, one of which has been explained and one that hasn't.

First, it can be literally true, as others have pointed out. When asked to give to a charity at home (either at the front door or via phone), someone who had already given to that charity via a workplace solicitation might answer, "I already gave at the office." (This can also be said dismissively or sarcastically when it's not actually truthful, but this disingenuous usage doesn't change the implication of the usage… this is merely what we call lying.)

Second, it can be used metaphorically, in the same general ballpark of the expression "busman's holiday." It can be used to beg off of a request to give one's time or energy to something – presumably as a volunteer – that is similar to what one does at work, especially when one's job is already in some level of service to others and with the rationale that one only has a limited amount of energy to devote to such tasks and that limited amount is already fully expended at work. An example might be a teacher being asked to tutor kids, or a nurse being asked to visit sick people. In this sense, "I gave at the office" means, "I already spend most of my days doing this task for others… I need to do something else on my time off."

  • I once heard talk show host (now Congressman) Jason Lewis use the phrase "I already gave at the office" (as in "I already paid my taxes via my paycheck") as an illustration of why big-government social programs are so deleterious. For one thing, it gives people the false impression that they are being charitable by paying taxes, thinking that if their tax money is going to social programs, they are excused from giving charitable donations. A person is forced, under penalty of law, to pay taxes, so this is not being charitable. – Vince Jun 16 '17 at 7:43

I remember hearing a character say this in a cartoon from the bugs bunny related group of cartoons as a kid in the 70's as a way of saying "no, I've already done my part and given all I will so lay off and goodbye." It was clearly established and one of those adult inside jokes so common in those cartoons.

This is a very old expression. If you remember from A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, two men went to Scrooge's office and asked for a donation. After the ghosts visit he sees them on the street (likely seeking donations on the street).

This is sometimes used as a sarcastic reference to socialistic government policies. To expand the idea:

"The government took money out of my paycheck to help you, so I'm not going to give you money now."

It's slightly less rude than saying, "Get a job, you lazy bum." or "It's not my problem."

protected by Andrew Leach Jun 16 '17 at 15:21

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