Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Make Ends Meet

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 19, 2011

When you can make both ends meet, it means that you have enough money coming into your household to pay for the expenses being made by your household.  The opposite of this is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In the Times-Herald Record newspaper of Middletown, New York, a Letter to the Editor written by James F. Leiner of New Windsor was published on July 13, 2010.   His letter addressed two featured news articles in the newspaper on July 10, 2010 about dealing with celebrity basketball player, LeBron James.  The letter stated in part:

There was no other noteworthy news to report?  How about mentioning the shame of paying a guy $96 million to play a game while people in Orange County are struggling to pay their taxes and make ends meet? We face the largest tax increase in the history of our country on Jan. 1, 2011, and that fact fails to make a mention anywhere in your missal.

In Jack London‘s book, “Burning Daylight” published in 1910, the author shares this intriguing exchange between two men dealing with pay-roll.

Two weeks later, with the pay-roll before them, it was:–

“Matthewson, who’s this bookkeeper, Rogers? Your nephew? I thought so. He’s pulling down eighty-five a month.

After — this let him draw thirty-five. The forty can ride with me at interest.”

“Impossible!” Matthewson cried. “He can’t make ends meet on his salary as it is, and he has a wife and two kids–“

Daylight was upon him with a mighty oath.

In 1824, Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850) dedicated his book “Bureaucracy” to Comtesse Seraphina San Severino with the respectful homage of sincere and deep admiration.”  In Chapter IV entitled, “Three-Quarter Length Portraits Of Certain Government Officials” the following is found:

Once a month he took Zelie to the theatre, with tickets bestowed by du Bruel or Bixiou; for Bixiou was capable of anything, even of doing a kindness. Monsieur and Madame Minard paid their visits in person on New-Year’s day.  Those who saw them often asked how it was that a woman could keep her husband in good clothes, wear a Leghorn bonnet with flowers, embroidered muslin dresses, silk mantles, prunella boots, handsome fichus, a Chinese parasol, and drive home in a hackney-coach, and yet be virtuous; while Madame Colleville and other “ladies” of her kind could scarcely make ends meet, though they had double Madame Minard’s means.

In 1784,naval surgeon and novelist Tobias Smollett wrote in his book “The Adventures of Roderick Random” thusly:

In the course of our conversation, which was interlarded with scraps of Latin, we understood that this facetious person was a schoolmaster, whose income being small, he was fain to keep a glass of good liquor for the entertainment of passengers by which he made shift to make the two ends of the year meet. “I am this day,” said he, “the happiest old fellow in his majesty’s dominions. My wife, rest her soul, is in heaven. My daughter is to be married next week; but the two chief pleasures of my life are these (pointing to the bottle and a large edition of Horace that lay on the table). I am old, ’tis true–what then? the more reason I should enjoy the small share of life that remains, as my friend Flaccus advises: ‘Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi finem dii dederint. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.'”

Thomas Fuller’s book, “The History of the Worthies of England” published in 1661 provides this example of the expression:

Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring only to make both ends meet; and as for that little that lapped over he gave it to pious uses.

When all is said and done, however, the English phrase is a translation of the French saying “joindre les deux bouts” which became popular at the onset of the Renaissance era from 1450 through to 1600.  It is during this era that ruff collars — high standing pleated collars made of starched linen or lace — also known as millstone collars, came into vogue and were especially favoured in France. 

The more affluent the individual, the larger the ruff collar.  However, those who wore such collars had to preserve them when dining.  If the collars were too large for the wearer to reach around and tie both ends of a large serviette around the neck, this had to be done by servants.  The original expression was that the wearer of the ruff collar “avait du mal à joindre les deux bouts” … “had trouble making both ends [of the serviette] meet.”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to this phrase prior to the Renaissance era.

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