Monday, 6 October 2014

Soak The Rich

The British news at the moment is full of talk of "soaking the rich". I forget which party is meant to be doing it, as I have no interest in parties not of the birthday variety. But the rich, it appears, are to be soaked sodden. This is rather odd when you think about it. Who are these soaking rich, and why are they so very, very moist?

The answer, it appears, is that they aren't wet at all. Soaking the rich goes back to 1935 when F.D. Roosevelt was accused of soaking the rich with his taxes. The OED has:

He thought he was being ‘clever’ when he tried to steal Huey Long's thunder by suddenly coming out with his ‘soak the rich’ tax message.

The Americans had been using the word soak to mean overcharge or extort money since at least 1895. But it has nothing to do with moisture. It's to do with hitting people.

Ever since 1699 people have been using the word sock to mean hit, beat, pummel, punch or bash. Often a mysterious it is inserted as in "sock it to him". The Americans, for some reason best known to the Americans, decided to start using soak for sock. So in 1892 they could say:

To-day's Washington Post ‘soaks’ it to the Southern Democrats in the House

And just as you can be hit for money, or stung for money, so you can be soaked, or socked, for money. So they're soaking [it to] the rich.

There's even a lovely Mark Twain line from 1883 where you can see the word just tipping over. In The Art of Inhumation a salesman says:

Why, just look at it. A rich man won’t have anything but your very best; and you can just pile it on, too—pile it on and sock it to him—he won’t ever holler.

And that, dear reader, proves that a chap can be soaked dry.

By taxing umbrellas


  1. The OED's reference can be easily antedated.

    The New York Times's archive shows references from 1932, including one in the title of a letter to the editor.

    Similarly, the phrase also appears in the title of a Wall Street Journal editorial from the same year.

    A search in the Wall Street Journal's archives turns up a reference from 1917, although I'm not going to pay to confirm that the phrase is in fact there.

  2. Huey P Long was a Governor of Louisiana.

    I would heartily reccomend Randy Newmans' concept album 'Good Old Boys' - it concerns the politics and issues of certain aspects of the Deep South at the time and one of the songs features HPL.....

    Laurie -

  3. I've always imagined the two to be different. 'Sock it to him' I've imagined a hard cricket ball soaring over to hit the victim broadside. 'Soak the rich' I've seen as a deluge coursing through the rich layers of clothing until the coins are washed out at the bottom.
    Sayings are, after all, to stimulate the imagination. Aren't they?