The meaning of having nothing [UPDATED]Published 8:27am Friday, July 6, 2012 Updated 12:32pm Friday, July 6, 2012
Here comes another batch of where some of the words we use come from; one might even say I’m going for broke, here.
The word “broke,” meaning you’re out of money, or there is some chance of that happening if you use the “going for broke” expression, comes from a time in early Europe when banks back gave small porcelain tiles to credit-worthy customers. On these tiles was imprinted the owner’s name, his credit limit, and the name of the issuing bank. (A lot like today’s credit cards.)
Each time the customer wanted to borrow money, he presented the tile to the bank teller, who would compare the limit on the tile with how much money had already been borrowed. When the customer hit the limit, the teller “broke” the tile, hence the expression “I’m broke” came to mean out of money.
Somewhere along the line, bread became synonymous with money, or vice versa, depending upon whether or not you were hungry. Back when bread was the staple in everyone’s diet, there were certain customs which applied to who got what part of the loaf.
For example, any workers attached to the household got the bottom, which, since it was baked in a rudimentary, wood-fired oven, was generally burned. The family itself got the middle. Any guests or privileged people attending the meal got the top of the loaf. The term “middle class” didn’t come from this custom, although it could well have. But the term “upper crust” sure did. Likely, they weren’t broke, and were up to snuff.
If you were out of money, you probably had not come “up to snuff” at some business deal. That expression likely comes from the idea that snuff was very expensive and only the upper-class, well-to-do could use it. In fact, the original expression was “up to snuff and a pinch above it.” It got shortened somewhere along the way.
In fact, when it comes to money and success, one can say there isn’t much leeway; either you are, or you aren’t. The term “leeway” is an early 1600’s sailing description that refers to a ship’s drift sideways, and that drift, when the sailing ship is docking, means that you have either docked it correctly, or slammed the heck out of the pilings. The captain could blame the wind and tide all he wanted, still, everyone knew who was to blame. No leeway for him.
Should the captain damage either the ship or the pier, he might get the third degree from the authorities. The expression “third degree” comes from the Free Mason (or just Mason) fraternal organization. There are, as I understand, 33 degrees within Freemasonry, and it is the first three that are used for initiating a new member into the organization.
Of those three levels, entering either of the first two is relatively stress free; however, to attain initiation into the third degree of membership — a ranking in which the member may stay forever — there are some unpleasant and stressful occurrences. Hence the expression, “He is getting the third degree,” meaning he is going through some unpleasant experience.
There would be very little leeway there, I guess.
Not like the English language, which has a lot.