Pay the Piper – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Do you have some bills that need to be paid for and you need a quick, colloquial expression that tells other people this in a few words? The term ‘pay the piper’ is most often used as a sentence that expresses this action (or call to action). This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The saying ‘pay the piper’ or ‘to pay the piper’ is a type of figurative saying that is used to refer to financial or other obligations which have to be met.

The term is sometimes alternatively used as ‘to pay the fiddler’ and the meaning of this variation is considered identical to the expression which says to pay the piper.

When someone is going to ‘pay the piper’ it means that they are going to pay for something or settle a bill.

The expression ‘pay the piper’ is a derivative expression of a longer one, which is that ‘those who pay the piper carry the tune.’

The longer expression implies that the financial obligation of paying for something elevates someone’s status to have a say about how (or sometimes when) action is taken with the money.

The most basic meaning of the expression says that someone who has paid for something gets to “call the shots” about what happens next.

The shorter expression ‘pay the piper’ is usually used to refer mostly to financial obligations, and things that need to be taken care of or paid for.

Example Usage

“I’ll be right back once I’ve gone to the store. I’ve just gotten my salary, and it’s time to go pay the piper first.”

“If I paid for the food, then I get to say what we’re going to put on the pizza and I like pineapples. You know that old expression about the one that pays the piper? Get the pineapple because I said so.”

“You know what your dad had to do to keep your mother happy? He had to work himself to death for most of the year, and he had nothing left once he had paid the piper.”

“There’s a lot of things that will get you far in life, but the first thing you have to do if you want to be financially responsible is to make sure you pay the piper when it’s time to do so. It’s the best way to stay out of trouble.”

Origin

The origin of the term ‘paying the piper’ is said to originate from the mid-1800s with the poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin written by author Robert Browning.

When a town is overrun by an uncontrollable plague, the town ‘pays the piper’ to lead the rats out of town. Unfortunately, he is dissatisfied with the townspeople and eventually leads their children out of town with the rats – in some versions of the story, the rats and children are both drowned in the river outside of town.

The implication of the term is that those who didn’t ‘pay the piper’ thus paid for their actions with a price higher than money.

Phrases Similar to Pay the Piper

  • Pay your dues

Phrases Opposite to Pay the Piper

  • N/a

What is the Correct Saying?

  • [to] pay the piper
  • paying the piper
  • he who pays the piper calls the tune

Ways People May Say Pay the Piper Incorrectly

There are several different ways in which the term ‘pay the piper’ can be used in the wrong ways, usually when the context of the term is not understood by the person saying it (or by the people it is being said to).

The expression is never used in the plural form, and nobody is ever told to ‘pay the pipers’.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Pay the Piper

The term ‘pay the piper’ can be used to indicate that someone has just catered to a financial obligation (or they are about to).

The expression can be used in any tense, and its meaning is metaphorical due to the lack of a physical piper to be paid.

The longer expression ‘[they who] pay the piper calls the tune’ is also acceptable and it means to say that people who pay the bills, get to “call the shots”.

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