Fork out


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Fork out'?

To ‘fork out’ is to hand over a sum of money. The expression is often used when the payee is rather unwilling to pay a large amount. For example, “I had to fork out £200 to repair the scratch my daughter made on the car”.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Fork out'?

The expression ‘fork out’ entered the language in England in the mid-19th century. On the face of it there doesn’t appear to be a connection between forking and paying/handing over.

The connection is that fork was a slang term for ‘pickpocket’. This is recorded in Nathan Bailey’s, Etymological English Dictionary, 1737:

“FORK, a Pick-pocket. Lets Fork him; Let us pick that Man’s Pocket. It is done by thrusting the Fingers, strait, stiff, open and very quick into the Pocket, and so closing them, hook what can be held between them.”

To properly fork out money you should
hold it between your fingers, as a
pickpocket would do.

The term ‘fork-out’ came to be used to mean ‘pay/surrender’ or ‘hand over’ money. The allusion was to the fingers of one’s hand being used to hold the money, like a pickpocket.

The first example that I can find of ‘fork out’ in print is from the London newspaper The Observer, April 1825:

He was obliged to fork out a good deal of money to some creditors.

The connection between forks and fingers was also used in the derivation of another slang phrase – ‘put up your dukes‘. By a Cockney rhyming slang route, that links fingers, that is forks, to dukes (of Yorks).

Trend of fork out in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.