Understanding the Idiom: "filthy lucre" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: From filthy +‎ lucre, which appears in the Tyndale Bible, and four times in the King James Version of the Bible, as a calque of Ancient Greek αἰσχρόν κέρδος (aiskhrón kérdos) and related terms such as αἰσχροκερδής (aiskhrokerdḗs, “[a person] given to filthy lucre”): see the quotations and Citations:filthy lucre.

Money has always been an important part of human life. It is a means to acquire goods and services, and it can also be used as a measure of success or power. However, there are times when money becomes more than just a tool for survival or status symbol. In some cases, it can become an obsession that leads people to do unethical things in order to acquire more wealth.

The idiom “filthy lucre” refers to this kind of excessive love for money. It implies that the pursuit of wealth can lead one down a path of moral corruption and degradation. The term “lucre” itself is derived from Latin word “lucrum,” which means profit or gain.

In modern usage, the phrase “filthy lucre” is often used to describe ill-gotten gains or money obtained through dishonest means. It suggests that such wealth is tainted by its association with greed and immorality.

This idiom has been around for centuries, appearing in various forms in literature and religious texts throughout history. Its meaning remains relevant today as society continues to grapple with issues related to income inequality, corruption, and ethical behavior in business.

In the following sections, we will explore the origins and evolution of this idiom, as well as its significance in contemporary culture. We will examine how it has been used in different contexts over time and what lessons we can learn from its message about the dangers of unchecked greed.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “filthy lucre”

The idiom “filthy lucre” has a rich history that dates back to ancient times. It is often used to describe money or wealth that has been obtained through immoral or unethical means. The term “lucre” itself comes from the Latin word “lucrum,” which means profit or gain.

In biblical times, the phrase was used in reference to Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. This association with greed and betrayal has continued throughout history, with many famous literary works using the phrase in a negative context.

During the Middle Ages, usury (the practice of charging interest on loans) was considered a sin by the Catholic Church. Money lenders were often seen as greedy and unscrupulous individuals who profited off the misfortune of others. This negative perception led to the use of phrases like “filthy lucre” to describe their ill-gotten gains.

In modern times, the idiom is still commonly used to refer to money earned through dishonest means or at someone else’s expense. Its origins and historical context serve as a reminder that wealth should be earned through hard work and ethical practices rather than deceitful tactics.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “filthy lucre”

The idiom “filthy lucre” has been used in various contexts to describe money earned through immoral or unethical means. It is often associated with greed, corruption, and dishonesty. However, the usage of this idiom has evolved over time and can be found in different forms across different cultures.

Variations of the Idiom

While “filthy lucre” is a commonly used phrase, there are variations of it that exist in different languages and cultures. For example, in Spanish, the phrase “dinero sucio” translates to “dirty money”, which carries a similar connotation as filthy lucre. In French, the phrase “argent sale” means dirty money as well.

Usage in Literature and Media

The idiom “filthy lucre” has been widely used in literature and media to convey a sense of moral decay or corruption. In William Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens, one character says: “Gold? Yellow, glittering precious gold? No… gods! I am no idle votarist: roots you clear heavens!” This passage illustrates how even characters from centuries ago recognized the corrupting influence of wealth.

In modern media, we see examples such as Breaking Bad where Walter White becomes increasingly consumed by his desire for wealth at any cost. The show portrays how greed can lead individuals down a path towards immorality.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “filthy lucre”

One synonym for “filthy lucre” is “ill-gotten gains.” This phrase implies that the money was acquired in a way that is not morally or legally acceptable. Another synonym is “dirty money,” which suggests that the funds were obtained through shady or unethical practices.

On the other hand, an antonym for “filthy lucre” could be “honest earnings.” This phrase conveys the idea of earning money through hard work and ethical means. Similarly, one could use the term “clean money” to refer to funds earned without any hint of impropriety.

In terms of cultural insights, it’s worth noting that the concept of dirty or tainted money exists in many cultures around the world. For example, in Chinese culture, there is a saying: “Money cannot buy happiness.” This reflects a belief that wealth alone does not bring true satisfaction or fulfillment in life.

In Western societies, there is often a tension between material success and moral values. While many people aspire to financial prosperity, they also recognize that greed and corruption can lead to negative consequences both personally and socially.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “filthy lucre”

1. Fill in the blanks:

– The businessman was accused of being motivated by ___________.

– She refused to accept the job offer because she didn’t want to be associated with ___________.

– Some people believe that artists should create for art’s sake, not for ___________.

2. Match the definitions:

a) Money obtained through dishonest or immoral means

b) Wealth regarded as a source of evil and corruption

c) A derogatory term used to describe money

d) A biblical reference to money gained through sinful actions

(i) filthy lucre (ii) mammon (iii) blood money (iv) ill-gotten gains

3. Create sentences using “filthy lucre”:

– Despite his claims of altruism, it was clear that he was only interested in acquiring more _________.

– The politician’s acceptance of bribes showed his willingness to prioritize _________ over ethics.

– The church denounced any form of worship that involved seeking _________.

4. Discuss scenarios where “filthy lucre” might be used:

In groups, brainstorm situations where someone might be accused of pursuing “filthy lucre”. For example, a CEO who cuts corners on safety measures to increase profits could be seen as prioritizing wealth over human life. Share your ideas with the class and discuss how they relate to the concept of “filthy lucre”.

These exercises aim to deepen your understanding and usage of the idiom “filthy lucre”. By practicing these activities, you’ll become more confident in identifying instances where this phrase is appropriate and effective in communication.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “Filthy Lucre”

When using idioms, it’s important to understand their meaning and context. The idiom “filthy lucre” is often used to describe money earned in a dishonest or unethical way. However, there are some common mistakes that people make when using this phrase.

Mistake #1: Using the Term Incorrectly

The first mistake people make is using the term “filthy lucre” incorrectly. This phrase should only be used when referring to money that has been obtained through dishonest means. If you use it to describe any type of money, you risk sounding uninformed or even offensive.

Mistake #2: Overusing the Phrase

Another mistake people make is overusing the phrase “filthy lucre.” While it can be an effective way to convey a message about unethical behavior, using it too frequently can dilute its impact and come across as cliché.

  • Avoid using “filthy lucre” in every sentence
  • Use other phrases and idioms to convey similar meanings
  • Vary your language for greater impact


  1. Compare “filthy lucre, n.” under “filthy, adj., n., and adv.”, in OED Online ?, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2022.
  2. filthy lucre, n.”, in Dictionary.com Unabridged, Dictionary.com, LLC, 1995–present, reproduced from Stuart Berg Flexner, editor in chief, Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition, New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1993, >ISBN.
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