Rob Peter to Pay Paul

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Meaning of Idiom 'Rob Peter to Pay Paul'

To rob Peter to pay Paul means to borrow money from one person or institution to pay back money owed to another person; to take from one person to give to another; to shift money or resources without accomplishing any gain or benefit. 2,1

Usage

"My brother can't pay his rent. It turns out he's been borrowing money to pay off his other debts, and now he's so behind he's going to be kicked out of his home. I told him that's just robbing Peter to pay Paul."

"Using credit cards to pay off a loan is like robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Origin

Although this idiom certainly refers to the Biblical apostles Peter and Paul, it is not from the Bible. The earliest known example of its use is from John Wycliffe's Select English Works (1380):

"Lord hou schulde God approve that thou robbe Peteur, and gif this robbere to Poule in the name of Crist?"

However, the expression seems to be just as old in French:

"Descouvrir S Pierre pour couvir s Pol." (Unclothe St. Peter to clothe St. Paul).

Both may derive from an earlier Latin expression which had to do with crucifying Paul to redeem Peter.

Although earlier uses of this expression did have the connotation of robbing or taking, it is most often used today to refer to borrowing, most likely owing to a variation of the expression using the word borrow instead of rob or unclothe. 1, 3

Sources
1. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2. McIntosh, Colin. Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
3. Cresswell, Julia. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Oxford UP, 2010.

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