The Circuitous Path from Bulge to Budget



If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin budget,
Then my account I well may, give,
And in the stocks avouch it.
Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale,  Act IV, Sc. III, Shakespeare

These lines got me thinking about the town’s finances. Sow-skin budget? What does that mean? And how does that relate to the financial plan for the coming year staff is preparing for council’s review? I did some reading (of course…).

In Shakespeare’s time, the online etymological dictionary tells us the word budget meant something quite different:*

“leather pouch,” from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “leather bag, wallet, pouch,” from Latin bulga “leather bag,” of Gaulish origin (cf. Old Irish bolg “bag,” Breton bolc’h “flax pod”), from PIE *bhelgh- (see belly (n.)). Modern financial meaning (1733) is from notion of treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet. Another 18c. transferred sense was “bundle of news,” hence the use of the word as the title of some newspapers.

The use of budget as a verb comes from much later – 1884. But for the Bard, a budget was a leather purse (or pouch or wallet). The annual budget is also a fairly new invention, as the Telegraph tells us:

It was not until the early 18th century that a version of the annual Budget emerged. The origins of the word Budget lie in the term “bougette” – a wallet in which documents or money could be kept. While at first referring only to the Chancellor’s annual speech on the country’s finances, the word quickly became used for any financial statement or plan…
Budget Day has historically been held during Spring because the collection of the Land Tax took place in April, and much of the country’s wealth derived from agriculture.

There’s a great description on World Wide Words of the convoluted path the word took to get to today’s usage:

Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather…
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget…
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole… It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times…

Marina Orlova, the entertaining and pulchritudinous word lady at Hot for, gives us a more amusing etymology in the Youtube video at the top of this post. Who says learning has to be dull?

Canadians, like our Australian and New Zealand cousins, “bring down” a budget, rather than merely present it, according to the delightful book, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something To Do With Pigs, by Katherine Barber. She documents the way a word for bulge came to mean financial planning.

In early usage, when you “opened your budget” it meant you said what’s on your mind. The Chancellor of the Exchequer used the term in the 1700s to show he was opening his metaphorical purse to show its financial contents and plans. This use drifted apart and the word came onto its own outside the phrase in the following century. By the early 19th century, it was being used to mean both household and government financial management.

The UK History of Parliament blog tells us more about the first use of “opening the budget” phrase and the crisis that precipitated the remark:

…the phrase ‘to open one’s budget’ was being used in the sixteenth century to mean that someone was revealing something which was secret, perhaps even dubious. It meant something like bringing out a box of tricks. The phrase seems to have been first applied to a statement of government revenue and expenditure during the Excise Crisis in 1733. The crisis was the result of Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s plans to shift the burden of taxation from landed wealth (which fell heavily on the country gentry who dominated the House of Commons) to consumption (which would have a much greater impact on the poor). Whipped up by the highly vocal opposition to Walpole, there had been rumours for months before the opening of Parliament in mid January 1733 that he would announce the introduction of excise taxes on various goods. The excise was regarded with intense dislike because it was associated with interference by bureaucrats in people’s property and daily lives. Walpole finally revealed his proposals amid intense popular and parliamentary excitement on 14th March, and explained and defended them in a pamphlet, A letter from a member of Parliament to his friends in the country, concerning the duties on wine and tobacco. A reply was published by one of the most virulent leaders of the opposition to Walpole, William Pulteney, later Earl of Bath (Pulteney’s career before 1715, when he was a close associate of Walpole, is dealt with in a separate article, here).

Called The budget opened. Or, An answer to a pamphlet. Intitled, a letter from a member of Parliament to his friends in the country, concerning the duties on wine and tobacco, it attacked and mocked the proposals as typically Walpolean trickery, like the fraudulent remedies of a quack doctor:

“At length, the Mountain is deliver’d. The grand Mystery, which was long deemed too sacred for the unhallow’d Eyes of the People, is reveal’d. What is reveal’d? Nothing, but what has been known, confuted and exploded long before it was publickly acknowledg’d’. ‘The budget is opened; and our State Emperick hath dispensed his Packets by his Zany Couriers through all Parts of the Kingdom. For my self, I do not pretend to understand this Art of political Legerdemain; nor can I find out the Difference between a new Tax, and a new Method of collecting an old Tax, which will bring in a Sum, equivalent to a new one.”

The Actuary tells us this 1733 quote from an English satirist led to the word budget being widely adopted as a noun for financial plans. By 1764, the word budget was being used in a non-satirical manner, a use that has remained in common parlance. As the History of Parliament blog also tells us:

…the first use of the phrase ‘opening the budget’ in this sense in 1753. By 1764, at least, it seems to have been well established. That year George Grenville‘s budget speech of 9 March (of 2 and three quarter hours) which introduced stamp duties on the colonies provoked a response, The Budget: inscribed to the man who thinks himself a minister, and a counter-response, An Answer to The Budget which took the trouble to explain what it meant (for the benefit of ‘ignoramuses’, it said):

‘When the House of Commons have voted the Supplies, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, towards the latter end of the Sessions, opens to the House, in a Speech, what are to be the Ways and Means for raising the Money granted by the Supplies’.

It also grumbled:

‘It seems to be the evil genius of this country, that every Man is a Politician: Every ignorant City Shop-keeper and Cobler is to be at Liberty to watch the State, scrutinize the Conduct of Ministers, call Names, &c. … Unless some Method is taken that shall put a Stop to this increasing licentious Practice, it will be next to impossible to carry on the public Business.’

That last paragraph is timeless, isn’t it? Seems some things haven’t changed much in politics since the mid-eighteenth century.

The French word bouge, Barber tells us, had a variant “boulge” which the Inky Fool also reminds us how the word connects to bilge:

…the Norman French took that Latin bulga on in a different way. They had boulge. And from that the English, in about 1200 got the word bulge. Bulge also meant leather bag, but soon it started to mean… well… bulge.

However, when sailors referred to the bulge of a ship’s hull, they called it a bilge. Then, when sailors referred to the nasty rotten water that collected at the bottom of a ship’s hull, they called that bilge water, or just bilge.

Fiscal, Barber also tells us, comes from a “rare noun:” – fisc, for royal or state treasury, which comes from the Latin fiscus, the public treasury or the emperor’s privy purse. Fisc is an archaic word, dating around 1598, that also appears in Scots as “fisk.” According to comments below the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary page, it is still encountered.

The Online Etymological Dictionary gives us more to gnaw on:

1560s, “pertaining to public revenue,” from Middle French fiscal, from Late Latin fiscalis “of or belonging to the state treasury,” from Latin fiscus “treasury,” originally “purse, basket made of twigs (in which money was kept),” of unknown origin. The general sense of “financial” (1865, American English) was abstracted from phrases like fiscal calendar, fiscal year. Related: Fiscally.

And, yes, it’s the same budget we find in the word fussbudget and its synonym, fusspot: “One who is fussy about unimportant things.” The book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Weird Word Origins tells us it had another synonym, since forgotten: fussbox. In this case, the word budget refers back to the leather pouch. The book suggests the fussbudget has a “metaphorical bag of worries that he dips into.” The Word Detective weighs in on this term, too:

“Fuss” as a noun meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “A bustle or commotion out of proportion to the occasion; a state of (more or less ludicrous) consternation or anxiety,” is of uncertain origin. The leading theories trace it either to a variation of “force” (in the sense of “forcing a scene”) or simply to the sputtering sound of extreme frustration.

The “bucket,” “box” or “pot” appended to “fuss” simply carries the sense of “something full of,” making “fusspot,” for instance, a vivid image of a person as little pot of fussiness, always frothing and sputtering.

“Budget” in “fussbudget” is a bit more elusive, especially since we tend to associate “budget” with long columns of numbers. But one early meaning of “budget” (adopted in the 15th century from the French “bougette”) was “a collection of things,” which fits nicely with the fussbudget’s large inventory of complaints. Oddly enough, “fussbudget” has so far been found in print only as recently as 1904, but we can assume that it existed in spoken English long before that date.

Canada’s government has brought down an annual budget since Confederation and you can read all of them here. The very first budget was presented by the Finance Minister, John Rose, on Dec. 7, 1867 and the Hansard report on it opens thus:

The Hon. Mr. Rose then moved that the House resolve itself into Committee of Supply, and in doing so made his financIal statement as Minister of Finance. In rising to lay before the House a statement of the financial condition of the Dominion, he asked the forbearance of gentlemen on both sides. In order that they might understand more clearly the statement he was about to make, he would refer to the order in which he proposed to present – them:
First, account of Canada proper – Ontario and Quebec-for the year ending 30th June, 1866, and accounts ending 30th June, 1867; secondly, obligations of the Dominion assumed on the 1st July last; thirdly, the financial condition of the Dominion on the 30th November last; and lastly, statement of income and expenditure from 1st July last to 30th June next.

Stirring stuff, I suppose, for the time.  There’s a good little infographic about the Canadian budget from 1963 to the present on the CBC website. You can see which leaders brought in surpluses and which brought in deficits. Worthwhile Canadian Initiative gives a good overview and analysis of our budget, spending and debt.

Anyway, when the deputy mayor brings down the town’s 2014 budget (with the expected minimal tax increase, so it won’t be bulging… 😉 ), you can keep in mind the “sow-skin budget” of which Autolycus sang, and the peripatetic route it took to get from that meaning to its current one.


* In all of Shakespeare’s works, all those 884,647 words he penned, the word budget appears only in two plays that I have found. The other reference is from The Merry Wives of Windsor:

Act 5 Sc. II:

Ay, forsooth; I have spoke with her and we have a
nay-word how to know one another: I come to her in
white, and cry ‘mum;’ she cries ‘budget;’ and by
that we know one another.
That’s good too: but what needs either your ‘mum’
or her ‘budget?’ the white will decipher her well
enough. It hath struck ten o’clock.

and Act 5, Sc V:

I went to her in white, and cried ‘mum,’ and she
cried ‘budget,’ as Anne and I had appointed; and yet
it was not Anne, but a postmaster’s boy.

While I can’t find any reference to the word budget in Partridge’s book, Shakespeare’ Bawdy, in A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, vol. II, it indicated several sexual references to budget as a pun in other contemporary literature. Here in this play, I suggest it has equal status as a sexual pun. Shakespeare’s plays are full of such double entrendres.

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