FREE! Click here to Join FunTrivia. Thousands of games, quizzes, and lots more!
Fun Trivia
Home: Questions and Answers Forum
Answers to 100,000 Fascinating Questions
Welcome to FunTrivia's Question & Answer forum!

Search All Questions

Please cite any factual claims with citation links or references from authoritative sources. Editors continuously recheck submissions and claims.

Archived Questions

Goto Qn #

What is the origin and meaning of "pay the piper"?

Question #25241. Asked by Sammy.
Last updated Jan 23 2018.

Answer has 17 votes
Currently Best Answer
21 year member
4545 replies avatar

Answer has 17 votes.

Currently voted the best answer.
The expression is really "pay the piper" - no pied in it. The full form is "he who pays the piper calls the tune", from when pipes were used as an accompaniment for dancing, etc. The lord of the castle where the piper was playing did the paying, and chose the tunes.

The Pied Piper legend, as currently popularly known, is based on the Robert Browning poem, while "he who pays the piper calls the tune" goes back long before this. The meaning has nothing to do with consequences, but is to do with choices. A modern version could be "he who rents the flat chooses the curtains."

I prefer to take the simpler explanation - calling the tune. This was a commonplace experience, whereas the Pied Piper was little known in England until Browning. For a different take on the story, see 'The Fried Piper of Hamstring' by Anholt and Robins.


Response last updated by CmdrK on Jan 23 2018.
Dec 16 2002, 10:07 PM
Answer has 3 votes

Answer has 3 votes.
This expression most likely refers to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in which a piper abducts all of the children in the village of Hamelin as punishment because they refuse to pay him for catching all their rats. I assume that it means something on the lines of "pay your debts or face the consequences".

May 01 2008, 10:09 AM
Answer has 13 votes
18 year member
2119 replies

Answer has 13 votes.
"Some researchers believe that the [Pied Piper] tale has inspired the common English phrase "pay the piper", although others disagree. To "pay the piper" means to face the inevitable consequences of one's actions, possibly alluding to the story where the villagers broke their promise to pay the Piper for his assistance in ridding the town of the rats."


I agree more with this writer:

"In both German and English (and in most European languages for that matter) we find these ambigous connotations of the proverbial expression "to be a pied piper" or the mere title: "Pied Piper." But for the English language there is an additional curiosity that must be looked at, since many people connect the proverbial expression "To pay the piper" with the Pied Piper of the Hamelin legend as well. A check into the standard proverb collections reveals that this is actually a shortened version of such proverbs as "Who pays the piper, calls the tune" (1611), "Those that dance must pay the music" (1638), "He who pays the piper may order the tune" and "He who pays the piper can call the tune," for which 1611 is the earliest reference, but which are probably older."


Response last updated by Terry on Aug 22 2016.
May 01 2008, 9:46 PM
echotolosa star
Answer has 6 votes
echotolosa star
18 year member
28 replies

Answer has 6 votes.
"Paying the piper" means suffering the consequences of your own self-indulgent actions. The most usual accepted origin of this phrase is the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The citizens of Hamelin had a plague of rats and, when the Pied Piper offered to get rid of them for a sum of money, they accepted his offer and then refused to pay, when the rats were gone. To punish them, he then enticed tbeir children away with his music and imprisoned them in a hill forever.

[From 2008 article no longer online]

Response last updated by CmdrK on Jan 23 2018.
Oct 10 2008, 12:04 PM
Answer has 3 votes
22 year member
956 replies

Answer has 3 votes.
Alternatively, "he who pays the piper calls the tune", meaning whoever puts up the money gets to make the decisions. link

Response last updated by CmdrK on Jan 23 2018.
Oct 10 2008, 2:24 PM
Terry star
Answer has 15 votes
Terry star
24 year member
333 replies avatar

Answer has 15 votes.
It has nothing to do with pied pipers.

There is some debate about the exact origin of the phrase and whether "pay the piper" or "who pays the piper calls the tune" came first.

Wiki suggests that "pays the piper" comes "From the English phrase who pays the piper calls the tune."

In other words, to pay up to gain control of something.


(idiomatic) To pay expenses for something, and thus be in a position to be in control (i.e. to be able to call the tune).

(idiomatic) To pay a monetary debt or experience unfavorable consequences, especially when the payment or consequences are inevitable in spite of attempts to avoid them. ?


This site suggests that "pay the piper" came first, and that the "calls the tune" part came afterwards. It changes the meaning a bit, but clearly has nothing to do with rats.

"'He who pays the piper calls the tune.' It is interesting to discover how the usage of this proverb has changed.[1] The simple phrase 'pay the piper' predates the longer version by some centuries. It was used simply to mean 'bear the cost', with no reference at all to controlling the piper's playing. "

[1] See further F. P. Wilson, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, and B. J. Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings.


Response last updated by CmdrK on Jan 23 2018.
Aug 22 2016, 11:26 PM
free email trivia FREE! Get a new mixed Fun Trivia quiz each day in your email. It's a fun way to start your day!

arrow Your Email Address:

Sign in or Create Free User ID to participate in the discussion

Related FunTrivia Quizzes

play quiz The Origin and Meaning of Pub Names in Britain
(Pubs & Restaurants)
play quiz "Rowdy" Roddy Piper - Time To Pay The Piper
( Wrestling Personalities L-R)
play quiz What Happens When You Don't Pay the Piper
(Male Names in Songs)

Return to FunTrivia
"Ask FunTrivia" strives to offer the best answers possible to trivia questions. We ask our submitters to thoroughly research questions and provide sources where possible. Feel free to post corrections or additions. This is server B184.