Paying the Piper

Yesterday, Mark Evanier quoted Justice Antonin Scalia using an aphorism in a debate on government funding of the arts. The phrase he used:

“He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

It’s a reminder that the person who funds something invariably has a say in just what they’ve funded. (In this case, he pointed out that simply by choosing to fund some artistic endeavors, you have to choose which arts you fund.) But it reminded me of a similar phrase with a very different meaning:

“It’s time to pay the piper.”

In this case, the meaning is basically, OK, you’ve had your fun, now you need to pay the price. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it comes from the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in which the townspeople refused to pay him after he led all the town’s rats to drown in the river—so he exacted revenge by leading all the town’s children away. Not surprisingly, it’s this phrase that’s most often used with the Flash villain/ally of that name.

It’s interesting that two phrases with the same archaic base—who would describe a musician as a “piper” these days?—should be so different.

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