pay » play

Chiefly in:   he who plays the piper calls the tune

Classification: English – citational

Spotted in the wild:

  • He who plays the piper calls the tune: The future of university finance (
  • The ethics are really guided by the idiom of “he who plays the piper calls the tune.” This is power disguised under good intentions. (link)
  • [Daniel arap] Moi said the adage “he who plays the piper calls the tune” mirrors exactly the relationship between developed and developing countries. (link)

Analyzed or reported by:

The proverb “He who pays the piper calls the tune” or variants with _play_ substituted for _pay_ are sometimes used in ways the sense of which is not immediately clear:

* Once a private corporation screws up they have to play the piper and watch their corporation sink like the Titanic.(link)
* As I once played the piper I must now pay the count
So saida to Moyhammlet and marhaba to your Mount!
(James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake)

On the shift in meaning the saying has undergone, an excerpt from the essay _Should He Who Pays the Piper Call the Tune?_ by Margaret Atkins (footnote omitted):

> 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. Thus the Earl of Chesterfield, writing to his son about his hopes for peace in Europe, said, ‘The other powers cannot well dance, when neither France nor the maritime powers can, as they used to do, pay the piper’. In other words, war is unlikely, because no one will foot the bill. This usage remains alongside others right into the late twentieth century. Even when the phrase ‘call the tune’ or ‘choose the tune’ is added, the resulting proverb is not, at first, used to control the piper, but rather to emphasise the rights of the payer as against others who might be enjoying the piper’s playing. Mr Evan Spicer, for example, argued, in a debate on the constitution of a public water authority for London, that as London ratepayers were paying for the water supply their council should have full control of it, rather than share control with the chairmen of outside councils: ‘Londoners had paid the piper and should choose the tune’.

_Play the piper_ is also used to refer to an act of enticing unsuspecting victims and leading them into danger, as in the folk tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. German has the idiom _nach jemands Pfeife tanzen_, to dance to someone’s pipe, often understood to allude to this tale.

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/07/12 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by David Romano , 2006/08/03 at 8:28 pm

    I’ve noticed “play (close) attention” (from “pay close attention”) recently in some blogs (e.g., here I follow, and looking at the google count, there’s a small number: 25k for “play.close.attention” compared to 5.8m for “pay.close.attention”.

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