Paying through the nose

“I paid through the nose.”
When you are ripped off, why do you have to pay through the nose?

Well, when you are fed up with how you are being had you could always draw a line or put a stop to it or … :slight_smile:


This comes from the Viking habit of slitting open a non payers nostril as a deterrent to other people thinking about not paying their debts!

Weren’t our ancestors charming!


I found this expression in a book titled “Perfect Phrases for ESL Conversations Skills” by Dian Engelhardt. I suppose I bought the book not at a bookshop but at a Costco store in Japan one or two years ago. It says “if you paid more for something than it was worth,” you may use this expression.

Yes, that’s right. It’s used often here in Britain.

One way to find out possible origins is to Google “etymology: pay through the nose”
Your question was so interesting, that I did that.

This site:

The internet has a few fake etymologies for “paying through the nose,” the most gruesome of which says that Vikings used to slit conquered villagers’ noses if they could not pay their taxes. They were “paying through the nose,” or paying out handsomely.

This is extremely unlikely, given that the idiom surfaced eight centuries after the Vikings’ raids, but if it does come from the Vikings, the origin is probably much more boring.

The most plausible explanation given by Anatoly Liberman from the Oxford University Press blog is that when the Danes conquered Ireland, they wanted to make money off of their new subjects, a common goal among conquerors, and imposed a tax. This was known as a poll tax or “nose tax.”

It had nothing to do with an actual nose in the same way that a “head count” does not refer to counting dismembered heads. The nose was a synecdoche for a person — the Danes wanted to tax every person in Ireland, or all of their “noses.”

There is more there about another possible etymology, from sailors where “nose” is the bow of the ship and “paying” is releasing cable.

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I much prefer the Viking solution :slight_smile:

There used to be (?is?) a similar practice in Germany in relation to a particular Guild, that of the wayfaring craftsmen.

These had to wear their traditional uniform (black corduroy jacket and trousers with huge bell bottoms, a floppy hat and a kerchief as well as a golden earring) and travel from town to town and master to master for seven years after serving their appprenticeship. Only then could they become full Guild members and/or masters themselves.

If one of these wandering carpenters, cabinet makers, etc was deemed to have dishonoured the Guild, they had their earring ceremoniously ripped off (much like an officer had his uniform stripped of insignia and buttons and had his sword broken) and could in future by all the world be seen as someone untrustworthy. A bit drastic. In my youth the tradition was still going strong and wandering tradesmen added quite a romantic flavour to the street scene whenever they passed through town.

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Well, there you go! I’ve bought into the Viking origin for as long as I can remember! I think I was told this as part of my Anglo Saxon course in my history degree. But I guess that’s one of those throw away things you pick up wrongly. Or may even have been a joke!

Thank you for this very informative post.

I found the last possibility particularly interesting, as Im a sailor.

You certainly pay out your anchor cable to this day. It’s an expression I use regularly. Don’t think the nose of a ship is used in nautical terminology now. or has been used in even the 19th century. Have absolutely no doubt it has been though…

Now going to go away and find out when it was last used in normal nautical parlance

Isn’t language interesting.

But as I write, I wonder why a nautical explanation would have anything to do with paying too much… and in any event, you pay out cable when you release it. You don’t pay it.

I think it’s more likely to be a complete separate nautical description of something that happens on board ship… I think it won’t have anything to do with when you’ve been fleeced. And I must go and check why we say this!!

P.S. Forgot to give you the German word used to describe one of those disgraced Guild members: “Schlitzohr”. So, when you say in German that someone is a Schlitzohr, that person is perhaps not to be trusted …

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I love these forums but oh how they divert me from my Dutch - and much else!

Instead of putting in a solid half hour on my Dutch, I have been having a good chuckle and diving around The Internet. And thinking that when I read history all those years ago, we just couldn’t do this!

I had such fun, I thought I would share it!

Sanne, I think we can stick with our Vikings provided we accept no one really knows.

The Danes invaded Ireland in Anglo Saxon times (the 8th century) and they introduced a poll tax.

But many historians think they slit noses of non-payers of this poll tax. So nose could mean “head” or it could mean “nose”.

But either way it was long, long before proper records…and nobody really knows.

And anyway how does it all tie together in the 17th century when the phrase first emerged.?

I have decided that I want to think of some highly literate cove (17th century bloke) sitting in a coffee shop with his historian friends and dreaming up the phrase to amuse them while he complained about paying too high a price to his tailor for his new flowered waistcoat.

Is that true? Of course not!

But looking at the source material around, I think my scenario is as good as any - and makes me smile.

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Oh and “I’ve been fleeced”. It’s literal!

When a sheep is stripped of its fleece, it will be stripped down to its skin. Nothing left. Nothing to spare…

Interestingly we never say to fleece a sheep though!

Excuse the diversion. I got a bit carried away.

Must ask Silvia if there is a Dutch equivalent

I interpret “pay through the nose” to mean “to pay too much” or “to pay an excessive amount” but it is not forced, only done reluctantly. Similar to “pay an arm and a leg.” Any other body parts with which one pays dearly?

One’s last shirt doesn’t count as a body part, does it? :slight_smile: I believe in Spain things can cost you an eye.

In a couple of hours I’m talking to my Italki conversation teacher who is Dutch but lives in Spain. I must ask him and can ask about the Dutch… Kitty, how’s your Czech. Is it up to this yet?

Up to what? Giving the Czech equivalent?? This is my third day learning Czech with LingQ … though I know a bit from living in Prague. I am pushing to get beyond grocery shopping. :slight_smile: I will ask around, though.

Sorry! Best of luck with learning Czech. I’m sure you’ll do great! And you’re there, so goodness do you have a good environment to learn in! Looking forward to seeing you bound along…

Nah! Don’t apologize. I am intrigued by Steve’s way of learning languages, because he has such a great description of what I go through. I just can’t stick to these dumb dialogues in the usual books. BO-O-O-R-R-R-ING!! I learn nothing when I am bored.

On the other hand, one of my first words was “pochmurný” which I acquired in November, a dim depressing month here. It means gloomy or dismal. It has a great sound with that guttural “ch” (like in loch). I got chewed out by many Czechs for learning such words before I learned the basics. Other Czechs, when I pop this into the conversation, assume I must have all the basics and off they go at 180 km per hr. I need both, of course. Hope Steve’s LingQ way will allow that.