The Fascinating Meaning of “Budget”

Today we say we budget our time, attention, calories, and of course our money. We use the word as a noun and verb. But its roots come from satire and scandal. 

The etymology of budget

The word “budget” has a charming origin. It comes from the French word “bougette,” meaning “small leather bag.”

It was sort of a 15th-century French fanny pack.

In English “budget” first meant “pouch, wallet, bag.” However, these were not necessarily used to carry money.  “Budgets” were more often used by travelers, messengers, tinkers, and peddlers to transport small goods. For example, Shakespeare wrote tinkers “bear the sow-skin budget.”

Over time, “budget” began to refer to a type of folio containing important paperwork. Eventually, the word simply referred to the paperwork within the folio, rather than the folio itself.

This meaning of budget – a packet of important papers – further evolved to refer specifically to a packet of news, often delivered in the form of a letter.

This is what Thomas Jefferson meant in 1785: “I receive by Mr. Short a budget of London papers. They teem with every horror of which human nature is capable.”

This is also why several early newspapers had “budget” in their title, such as “New York Daily Budget” and “Philadelphia Evening Budget.”

When “Open My Budget” Meant “Time to Dish”

Connected to the meaning of “news,” the slang phrase “open my budget” emerged. When someone said they were going to “open their budget,” it meant they were going “speak their mind” and share some hot gossip or a scandalous opinion.

This is what Washington Irving meant in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1820: “From his half-itinerant life, also, he was a kind of traveling gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house….”

“Budget” Was First Used for Finances as Satire

“Budget” was first used in a financial sense in 1733. It was deployed as a satirical term in a pamphlet entitled “The Budget Opened,”  which attacked a government minister responsible for financial affairs and taxes in Britain.

But despite its root in satire, people quickly adopted “budget” as a noun to describe a spending plan. By the 1880s it was used as a verb – “to budget” as an activity.

In the early 1960’s “budget” became a synonym for “inexpensive.” Sometimes this was good, as in low-cost or thrifty. Sometimes it was negative, as in cheap or poorly made.

So far, “budget” has referred to a bag, a binder, a packet of important news, a controversial opinion, and finally as a sending plan.

Budget is now defined as “a plan to show how much money a person or organization will earn and how much they will need or be able to spend.”

Today we budget our time, attention, screen time, calories, and of course our money. We use the word as a noun and verb at home and at work. It retains some of its earliest meaning as a wallet or purse. As a financial term related to politics, we can easily understand how it relates to satire. “Budget” as a synonym for “low-cost” still evokes positive and negative meanings.

And just as people once described gossiping as “opening their budget,” it’s still considered taboo to talk about one’s income and spending.

The beautiful thing about language is that it’s always evolving along with culture. In 100 years, we’ll still need a word for a spending plan – but will “budget” be the word we use to describe it.

Edward Shepard

Edward Shepard

Marketing Lead at Tiller. Writer. Spreadsheet nerd. Get in touch with partnership ideas at edward @ tillerhq.com.

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