[Ads-l] Adage: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 29 16:32:47 UTC 2016

Excellent work, Peter. Thanks for posting those interesting citations.

Peter Reitan
> A "free lunch," generally served with beer or liquor in a tavern,
> dates to at least 1851.  It was kinda like the precursor of the
> modern happy hour buffet.

The OED has an entry for "free lunch" with a first citation in 1848.

[Begin excerpt]
free lunch, n.
1. orig. and chiefly U.S. A lunch provided free of charge in a bar,
saloon, etc., as a means of attracting customers. Freq. attrib. Now

1848   N.Y. Herald 4 July 3/3 (advt.)    George Eadie respectfully
intimates that having fitted up the above establishment, he will be
happy to see his friends on the 4th of July. Steaks, Chops, and Scotch
Mutton and Veal Pies, always on hand... Free Lunch at 11, A.M.
[End excerpt]

Back in 2013 Fred Shapiro posted a citation from 1847. Barry Popik has
an entry on his website that lists the same 1947 citation:


But there seems to be some ambiguity in the 1947 citation. Is the
"free lunch" a one-time event for the opening day, or is the event
recurrent? A one-time event would not quite correspond to the common
notion of "free lunch" as an ongoing saloon institution although it
might fit under a general definition.

Date: July 29, 1847
Newspaper: Louisville Morning Courier
Quote Page 3, Column 2 (also see Page 2, Column 5)
Database: Newspapers.com

[Begin excerpt]
Messrs. O'MARA & GORDON open their "Washington Exchange," formerly the
Washington Hall, to-day, with a free lunch. See their advertisement.
[End excerpt]

Here is the advertisement referred to in the excerpt above. It appears
on page 2. The "free lunch" seems to be a one-time event.

[Begin excerpt]
THE Public are invited to the opening of the Washington Exchange, to
day, at 10 o'clock, A.M., at which time a sumptuous Lunch will be
served for the accommodation of visitors. Come one, come all.
[End excerpt]

The OED also has a 1900 citation for figurative use.

{Begin excerpt]
free lunch, n.
2. fig. Something that is (seemingly) free of charge or cost; freq. in
phrases implying that everything inevitably involves a cost of some
kind, as there is (also ain't) no such thing as a free lunch.

1900   Mansfield (Ohio) News (Electronic text) 20 Dec.   This is no
free lunch. Our terms are cash in advance.
[End excerpt]


On Sun, Aug 28, 2016 at 5:23 PM, Peter Reitan <pjreitan at hotmail.com> wrote:
> I looked into "free lunch" last year before becoming distracted by something else.
> And, since there is no such thing as a "free lunch," someone beat me to the punch.
> My summary:
> A "free lunch," generally served with beer or liquor in a tavern, dates to at least 1851.  It was kinda like the precursor of the modern happy hour buffet.
> Because "free lunches" encouraged people to lounge around in bars, squandering the family's rent money or grocery money on booze and free food; it came under fire from the Temperance movement.
> The earliest example I could find of "free lunch" as a metaphor in a socio-economic policy discussion is from poem, credited to Josephine Pollard, that appeared in several papers, as early as September 1887:
> The Progressive Farmer (Winston, NC), September 8, 1887, page 5.
> Some find it convenient to live at their ease,
> And all obligations to shirk;
> On every occasion to do as they please,
> And give no attention to work.
> As idlers and sluggards, as loungers and drones,
> They follow their indolent ways.
> By being this lax, increasing the tax
> That somebody pays.
> Free lunches, free passes, they have at command,
> Rich gifts that to others are lost,
> And gaily they feast on the fat of the land,
> And travel regardless of cost.
> But for all the fine banquets, the wear and the tear
> Of public or private displays,
> Though you may go free, 'tis as sure as can be
> That somebody pays
> Some boast of the credit they freely obtain,
> The taxes from which they're exempt,
> And to cancel the favors received, it is plain
> They've made not a single attempt;
> With honor at stake, they consent to remain
> In debt to the end of their days,
> And with insolent pride, a "free horse" they ride,
> For which somebody pays.
> Some go through the world with a niggardly heart,
> And carry a miserly purse,
> While others, with liberal zeal, do their part,
> And freely their treasures disburse;
> And for hours of idleness we may enjoy,
> For losses and needless delays,
> For waste and neglect, it is well to reflect
> That somebody pays.
> -Josephine Pollard.
> A few weeks later, an anecdote by the same name was published, illustrating the ultimate costs of drinking too much and enjoying free lunches:
> The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, South Carolina), October 26, 1887, page 4 (citing a periodical called, Companion:
> Somebody Pays
> Tom C ----- , a lad from the country who had secured a situation in New York, was taken in charge by John, an older boy, who 'knew the ropes.' Here is the place for dinner,' he said one day, during their hour at noon, stopping before a glittering house, with windows of stained glass, and a gilt sign displaying an attractive bill of fare.
> 'Clam soup. Ham. Sardines. Cheese. Free lunch.  Come along! You can eat a hearty dinner, all for nothing.'
> But Tom drew back.  'I don't understand.  But I'm sure of one thing: Somebody pays,' he said.  A year later he met John, who had been discharged months before, coming out of the ginshop, staggering.  It was late at night.  John's wife, pale, hungry-looking, shabbily clothed, was waiting for him.
> 'I see now who paid for the free lunches, said the country lad, as he helped her to lead her drunken husband home. - Companion.
> I found numerous examples of similar sentiments throughout the 1890s, but not in the familiar form.
> The earliest example of something like the familiar idiom that I could find is from 1909:
> The Washington Herald, November 2, 1909, page 6
> Mr. Tillman's idea that free lunch is good enough for anybody - or even Presidents - may appear sound to some people, but, as a matter of face, there is no such thing as free lunch.  Somebody has to pay for it.
> I a similar expression from 1901 - but it was more literal:
> The Round Table (Beloit College yearbook), 1900
> At Paris there is no such thing as a free lunch, at least I never found anything of the kind, and I looked for them.  You always paid, not very much to be sure . . . .
> Pete Reitan
>> Date: Sun, 28 Aug 2016 02:06:39 -0400
>> From: adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
>> Subject: Adage: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject:      Adage: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> The Quote Investigator website now has an entry on the topic in the
>> subject line:
>> There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
>> http://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/08/27/free-lunch/
>> The treatment is incomplete, but the text is already over 3,300 words,
>> and that is enough for now. This saying has been discussed on the
>> mailing list repeatedly. I shared some findings back in October 2009.
>> Feedback welcome,
>> Garson
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list