Used as an idiom since the mid to late-1800’s.
Meaning of Pay the Piper Idiom
To pay the piper means to accept and to bear the consequences for some action or circumstance (usually something you’ve done wrong or badly).
Many sources, however, claim the meaning of this idiom is to pay the cost of an undertaking and thus be in charge of it. However, this usage of the expression is related to an earlier version “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” This does not reflect today’s use of the idiom which almost always refers to the consequences of a bad act.
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Examples Of Use
“You committed the crime, now it’s time to pay the piper.”
“The king ruled cruelly for many years but in the end, once the people had had enough, he paid the piper.”
“Keep eating like that and eventually you’ll have to pay the piper.”
Pay the piper comes from the famous 1842 poem by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story is about a German town called Hamelin which, after years of contentment, was suddenly plagued by a huge increase in the rat population, probably due to some plague or poison which had killed all the cats. The rats swarmed all over, causing much damage. Try as they might, the townspeople could not get rid of the rats.
Then appeared a mysterious stranger bearing a gold pipe. He announced that he had freed many towns from beetles and bats, and for a cost, he would get rid of the rats for the town.
Although he only wanted a thousand florins, the people were so desperate that the Mayor promised him 50,000 for his trouble, if he could succeed.
At dawn, the piper began playing his flute in the town and all the rats came out of hiding and followed behind him. In this way, he led them out of the town. All the rats were gone.
When the piper came back to collect his pay, the town refused to pay even his original fee of one thousand florins. The mayor, thinking the rats were dead, told the piper he should be happy if he received any pay at all, even fifty florins.
The pied piper warned the town angrily that they would regret cheating him out of his pay.
Despite his dire warning, the rats were gone so the townspeople went about their business, at last enjoying a peaceful nights sleep without the scurrying and gnawing of rats.
At dawn, while they slept, the sound of the piper’s pipe could be heard again, except this time only by the children. All the children got out of bed and followed behind the piper, just as the rats had before. The piper led the children out of town and into a mountainous cave. After all the children had walked into the cave, a great landslide sealed up the entrance. One little boy managed to escape and tell the town what had happened to the children. Although they tried, they could never rescue them, and they were lost forever.
Even after more children were born, the town never forgot this fatal lesson. The piper will get his due!
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