Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Good Money After Bad

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 25, 2013

When you throw good money after bad, you’re spending more and more money on something (or someone) that will never yield positive results for all you’ve invested.

On September 12, 2011, Kenneth W. Davis posted a short info bite to his site. Davis, who is a past president of the Association of Professional Communication Consultants, addressed the issue of investing time and effort into writing a piece and bad decisions made therein. The info bite was aptly entitled:

This Week: Don’t Throw Good Money After Bad

The phrase certainly grabs readers’ attention and perhaps this is why it makes such a reliable headline. When the Montreal Gazette wrote an article that stated Quebec Transport Minister Michel Clair “might just as well paint fleur de lys on dollar bills and throw them into the air” the title of the story was:

Good Money After Bad

Used in headlines, the phrase oftentimes finds itself repeated in the body of such an article as was the case in a news story carried in the Pittsburg Press on February 16, 1938. The article addressed the matter of unstable employer-employee relationships and began with this paragraph:

Is it heartening that efforts have not been dropped in Congress to set up a mediation system for shipping. For we agree with Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy of the Maritime Commission that, unless labor-management relations are stabilized, discipline established and traffic and travel attracted to American ships, we would only pour good money after bad to spend more of the taxpayers’ millions in subsidies

Decades earlier, on March 16, 1893 the phrase was used in a New York Times article about Jersey City property owners who were upset over awards made by the Commissioners for property taken for the construction of the new boulevard in Hudson County. Owners felt that the project suffered from what they called “monstrous waste and jobbery.” At the time of writing, the Board Of Freeholders had spent one million dollars on the project that, upon completion, would be a mud road and nothing more. The headline for this story was:

Good Money After Bad: Another Million For Hudson County’s New Boulevard

The “American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms” claims that the expression was coined in the late 1800s but Idiomation begs to differ, especially in light of the fact that the saying is found in an article published on July 23, 1880 in the Timaru Herald in New Zealand. On page 2, the following is found in an article discussing the Otago Harbor Board Bill and local indebtedness. It read, in part, as follows:

This argument raising further opposition to the Bill and a feeling being expressed that it would be better for the Harbor Board to stop its works and even to stop payment, than to go on throwing good money after bad. Mr. Driver, who was, we may say, a strenuous advocate of the Bill, propounded the startling theory that, in the case of the Harbor Board becoming insolvent, the colony would have to take over its liabilities.

Twenty years prior to that, in an article published on July 28, 1860 and entitled, “Alarming Transmogrification” in the Moreton Bay Courier included this in their report:

For example: — “Ran away, my man, Sam. He was black last month, but when he left he had become of a smooth, soft, and delicate whiteness, that would rival that of the tenderest, purest, Circassian.” Pray, would it not be flinging good money after bad, to print such an advertisement as that? And worse than all, perhaps the faithful bloodhound, having a fraternal admiratior, of Caleb Cushing and his theory, might decline to hunt “a Circassian.” The capitalists of the South might find that riches have legs, if not wings; and such a perfect conglomeration of everything might ensue as we dread to dwell upon.

And twenty years prior to that, in the Colonist newspaper of December 8, 1840, the Australian publication made use of the expression in its story entitled, “Court Of Requests Act.” Of special interest is the fact that the newspaper story refers to the expression as a common expression. The passage in which the phrase appears is as follows:

If it were asserted that there was any country in which a man, in order to recover a debt of 6l. or 7l., must begin by expending 60l. or 70., — where, at the outset, to use a common expression, he had to run the risk of throwing so much good money after bad, — it would at once be said, that whatever other benefits or advantages that country enjoyed, at least it was not fortunate in its system of law.

In fact, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette of Somerset, England published an article on March 25, 1773 entitled, “An Account Of Dr. Goldsmith’s Illness” that read in part:

… throwing away good money after bad. Whereas others are for pulling down and erecting one handsome, spacious, and commodious room in lieu thereof, with a large front door …

The “Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors” by Peter Richard Wilkinson claims that the idiom dates back to 1706 but does not provide the source for the claim.   However, this is incorrect as it appears nearly 20 years prior in the letters of William Fitzhugh.

Colonel William Fitzhugh was a lawyer, planter and merchant who relocated from England to Westmoreland County in Virginia in 1670. A self-made man, he was concerned with the fluctuation of tobacco prices since it was the source of his wealth. He furnished his home lavishly which included 122 pieces of English silver — a sound financial investment in that is could be melted down if need be, and made a social statement about his position in society. It’s been claimed that Fitzhugh’s letters to English merchants, ship captains and friends are filled with all manner of scheming. In a letter from 1690, William Fitzhugh wrote:

More money would be spent on prosecuting than he would be able to answer, and consequently good money thrown after bad.

Giovanni Torriano wrote and published a number of books on proverbs, including “New and Easie Directions for Attaining the Thuscan Italian Tongue” in 1639, “The Most Significant Select Italian Proverbs” in 1642, “A dictionary Italian and English, formerly compiled by John Florio, now diligently revised” in 1659, and “Piazza universale di proverbi italiani: Or A Common Place Of Italian Proverbes and Proverbial Phrases” in 1666, among other tomes.  However, it was in his book “Italian Proverbial Phrases” published in 1662 that he wrote:

The English say, To send good Mony after bad, to lose the Substance, for the Shaddow.

Since this was already a known idiom at the time of publication in 1662, it is not unreasonable to believe that it was in use in the preceding two generations. For this reason, Idiomation pegs the date of this expression to the early 1600s.

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3 Responses to “Good Money After Bad”

  1. Erik said

    I like how you quote The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms and other books along the way in this discussion, and then go on to show how they are incorrect. Livens up the story a bit….

    • Erik said

      Just FYI, the Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (2007) claims the 1706 source for this quote is J. Stevens “A New Spanish and English Dictionary.” You say Wilkinson’s book doesn’t provide a source, so that is probably it.

  2. […] went looking for a proverb with the word “bad” in it and discovered this one on the Historically Speaking blog. The saying captures the notion that continuing to spend more and more money on a failing endeavor […]

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