From 'donation' to 'tip', all the money-related words you need to know

In school, it’s called a fee; when you pay the government, it’s a tax; if they give some of it back, it’s a rebate; to the police or in court, it’s a fine, and when you owe someone, it’s a debt

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 12 Oct 2023, 8:13 PM

Money has more different words to describe it, depending on how and where it’s used, than almost anything else you can think of. They say that the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53 words for “snow”, because the Eskimos live with so much of it. I wonder what it says about the English language that it has so many different words for money!

In school, it’s called a fee; when you pay the government, it’s a tax; if they give some of it back, it’s a rebate; to the police or in court, it’s a fine, and when you owe someone, it’s a debt. Many who marry off a child pay a dowry, and if it doesn’t work out and ends in divorce, it becomes alimony, with maintenance paid to support children living with a former spouse. A parent who gives some money to teenage children to allow them to buy things for themselves is handing out an allowance. Give money in church and it’s an offering, to a charity or political party, it’s a donation, at a restaurant, it’s a tip (and if the establishment already includes it on your bill, it’s a service charge). Pay your manual labour for the work done and it’s their wages, pay an employee and it’s a salary, and when she retires, it’s a pension. Pay a writer for an article and it’s remuneration; a speaker often expects an honorarium; an agent demands a commission. A wronged party must be paid compensation and you usually settle a deal for a consideration. When you borrow from a bank, you take a loan, when you start paying it back, it’s an instalment. If you buy shares in a company, it’s a stake; so also is a bet in a card game! Even criminals require different terms for their money: corrupt officials demand bribes, kidnappers ask for ransom. Every single one of these words actually essentially means money.

Money also takes different forms. There’s paper money, referred to in British English as notes and in American English as bills. Metal money from a mint is called coins, and notes (or bills) and coins together are cash. When you write a cheque (in English) or a check (in American) you authorise your bank to pay a specified amount to a certain recipient. When you don’t have sufficient cash to fulfil a financial obligation, you can (if the other party trusts you enough) write the creditor a note committing yourself to pay later; this is called an IOU. A pre-paid coupon that can be exchanged for goods at a store is a voucher.

As tax accountants will tell you, there are other forms money takes. Your income is your money from all sources; your funds are the amount of money held by you; your reserves are the money you put aside for future use; and your capital is the amount of your total assets. Deposits are the money held by banks on behalf of their customers. Your budget, and the government’s, are both formal projections of income and spending. Subsidies are financial assistance given by governments to help some industries or support some kinds of otherwise uneconomic activity. Money given to foreign countries in the form of assistance for their development is aid. Currencies are the medium of exchange between countries.

The English language is so fond of money that there are dozens of idioms relating to spending lots of it. A very expensive item may be said to “cost an arm and a leg” and if it’s more than you can easily afford, you are “paying through your nose” for it. If someone is charging far too much money for something, the Brits call it “daylight robbery”, and the Yanks “highway robbery”. If you pay a good deal more than you should for something, simply because you can afford it, you “have more money than sense”. Behind your back you may be described disapprovingly as “spending money like water” or even “throwing your money around”. And if you waste money by continuing to spend it on a project that seems doomed, your friends will advise you “not to throw good money after bad”. That’s enough money words for today!

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