21 May 2014

"Pay dirt" reconsidered

The term "pay dirt" is in common use and familiar to everyone as a reference to earth or gravel containing gold.  In my experience the idiom has conventionally been used to refer to the discovery of great riches.  But during a recent reading of Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, I encountered several passages in which the term carried a more muted connotation:
Moody was not, truth be told, a terribly skilful prospector: he was hoping for nuggets rather than panning for dust.  Too often the ore-bearing gravel slipped through the netting at the bottom of the cradle, only to be washed away; sometimes he emptied his cradle twice over without finding any flakes at all.  He was making what the diggers called "pay dirt," meaning that the sum total of his weekly income was more or less equal to the sum total of his weekly expenditure, but it was a holding pattern he could not sustain. (p. 525)
And again:
"This claim," he said, gesturing.  "Pay dirt only.  Very small gold." (p.531)
We made only pay dirt during our first year in Otago. (p. 709)
As far as I can tell, "pay dirt" is an Americanism that emigrated to the Australian and NZ goldfields.  Whether the connotation changed from vast riches to a sustainable return, or whether the usage in this book simply reflects Catton's understanding of the idiom is unclear to me, but it certainly seems to be a different usage of the term.


  1. Perhaps the act of finding dirt that would just break even was a big deal to those prospectors hitting nothing at all. It may highlight the relative nature of 'good fortune', where simply surviving is sometimes really a great outcome in a desperate situation.

  2. Here in Australia I've never seen it used that way. I've only heard or used it to mean a good pay off. i.e. striking it lucky, not just scraping by.

    I just did a quick search for "pay dirt" on a NZ news site, and all the examples seem to use it the same way I would. So perhaps this is a very regional usage, or the author is confused about the idiom.

  3. Up here in the Klondike gold fields, where we have placer gold (loose rather than hard rock), pay dirt is the gold bearing gravels found on bedrock. You find out how much gold is actually in your pay dirt when you sluice or pan it out.


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