A few days ago I used the phrase “filthy lucre,” and my husband looked at me like I was speaking a different language. It means something like “dirty money” or “an unclean gain.” I feel like I’ve used that phrase my whole life, but he’d never heard it before. That got me wondering about its origin.
The Origin of ‘Filthy Lucre’
Before we talk about the phrase, let’s look at the strange word my husband was unfamiliar with—“lucre.” It comes from the Latin word “lucrum,” which also gave us the word “lucrative.” According to Etymonline, “lucrum” meant “gain, advantage, profit; wealth, or riches.”
“Lucre” has had a negative connotation since its earliest days in English. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the theologian John Wycliffe, who in his “Works” from 1380 refers disapprovingly to “worldly honour and lucre.”
Just a few years later in 1386, Chaucer used the term in the “Prioress’s Tale,” referring to the “lucre of villainy.”
The exact phrase I’m familiar with, “filthy lucre,” didn’t turn up until 1526 when William Tyndale used it as the translation of a line from the Greek version of the Bible’s Book of Titus. In the verse, Paul is warning against false teachers saying they are “teaching things which they ought not, because of filthy lucre.”
According to a site about the King James Bible called “The King’s English,” the phrase “filthy lucre” appears four times in that version of the Bible, each time being used to refer “to a grave temptation for gospel ministers.”
Given that the word “filthy” has been associated with unseemly money since the 1500s, it’s actually surprising that it took at least 300 more years for people to start describing the wealthy as being “filthy rich.”