Peppercorn rent

I saw a curious phrase used in John Clay’s fine biography R. D. Laing: A Divided Self (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996). Laing and colleagues were looking for new premises for their experimental psychotherapy, and Kingsley Hall in London’s East End was a possibility. (It would become “a hallowed shrine of the counter-culture movement”.) Clay writes:

Sid Briskin visited and reported back favourably. Then he and Laing, both dressed soberly, went to visit the trustee of the building, Sidney Russell, Laing mentioning his working-class Glasgow background to provide credibility. Russell was convinced and offered them a five-year lease at a peppercorn rent.

Peppercorn refers to the dried berry of the pepper plant, and the word later became generalised, or semantically broadened, to also mean “a small or insignificant thing” (AHD4), “something trifling” (Collins), “anything very small or insignificant” (Random House), etc.

Dried black and white PeppercornsPeppercorn rent is a phrase in its own right, dating back several centuries, meaning a very low, nominal or token rent given as “a simple acknowledgement that the tenement virtually belongs to the person to whom the peppercorn is given”, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has it. But this negligible financial exchange was once quite literally pepper-based.

Oxford Dictionaries labels the phrase British and say it originates in a once-common practice of “stipulating the payment of a peppercorn as a nominal rent”. Merriam-Webster has similar information: (1) “a rent formerly often stipulated in deeds and consisting in supplying a certain amount (as a pound) of black peppercorns at stated intervals”; (2) “a merely nominal rent in kind operating to keep alive a title.”

There’s a little more history on peppercorn rent (and rose rent!) in Curious English Words and Phrases, and some legal notes at Wikipedia. Before reading the book on Laing, I don’t think I’d ever noticed it before. Are you familiar with the phrase, or have you ever paid a peppercorn rent?

[image source]

22 Responses to Peppercorn rent

  1. languagehat says:

    I’ve known the phrase for years, but alas have never paid a peppercorn rent.

  2. europhile says:

    I’m a bit surprised by this post; peppercorn rent is a very common expression.

  3. Stan says:

    Hat: I’d like to see them become fashionable again.

    europhile: I didn’t mean to suggest it was obscure, just that I don’t remember noticing it before. It’s not a common expression in my experience.

  4. mollymooly says:

    I saw a TV documentary perhaps 20 years ago that had 1960s footage of a US general or defense official opening a base somewhere in the Pacific Rim, stating that the rent of one peppercorn was very reasonable, and ceremoniously handing over a peppercorn to a local official. Soon after I heard the specific phrase “peppercorn rent”, and have subsequently come across it often enough not to notice when I do. The fact that I remember when, as an adult, I first encountered it places it near the edge of my vocabulary.

  5. Shaun Downey says:

    I love expressions like that… although peppercorns would have been rather more expensive at one time!

    • The Corporation of London rents Billingsgate fish market from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for annual rent of one salmon.

      According to “corn rent” was the name for a tithe paid in kind from the harvest. I don’t know whether the similarity explains why peppercorns came to be so popular for indicating a valueless item. After all, a pebble would be a more obvious choice of something tangible but worthless. If, on the other hand, peppercorns were originally used because they were formerly valuable, it seems peculiar that their significance flipped without an extended intermediate period when they had modest value and therefore ceased to be useful as currency yet were not yet nugatory enough to be useful as metaphor.

  6. catteau says:

    I’ve never heard that expression at all (I’m from the US, live in Canada). But is there any connection to referring to the prices of things as “peanuts?” Which, of course are quite cheap!

  7. If the phrase is less common in Ireland, I would guess that’s because it derives from an ancient English legal practice, predating the 1495 imposition of Poynings’ Law.

    To this day, when flats are purchased for a lump sum they are sold on long leases (you cannot own the freehold of a space that does not extend down to the ground up to the sky). The legal concept of leasing presumes a regular rent, so it is usual to include a nominal rent of about £10 per year. (Typically, much larger service charges are also payable, but they are calculated to reflect costs and treated differently from the ground rent.)

    So the figurative usage thrives.

    • Primroseliz says:

      The same is true of Irish law – and in Irish legal circles, at least, it’s a well-known and well-understood phrase.

  8. Stan says:

    mollymooly: Nice example! If I’d seen an actual peppercorn transaction, on TV or in situ, I reckon I’d have remembered it too.

    Shaun: That’s true, they would. Part of the phrase’s appeal must be the pleasing word peppercorn itself.

    catteau: I’m glad it’s not just me who wasn’t totally familiar with it! I don’t think there’s a connection with that sense of peanuts (which Chambers Slang Dict. dates to the 1910s); they just both happen to be small, disposable, trivial items, easily exchanged.

    Rich, Primroseliz: I appreciate the legal insights. For a rough measure of its non-specialist currency in Ireland, I searched on the Irish Times and Irish Independent websites and got 35 hits (about two/year) and 19 hits (a little over one/year) respectively.

  9. Thanks, Stan, for an interesting article and response.

    Presumably “peanuts” came to mean “cheap” simply because they are easy to hold but with little individual value. (Or would that be a typically mistaken folk etymology?)

    A related phrase, “pin money”, sounds like it arose because pins were once expensive, but folk etymologies are of course always wrong. “Pin” seems to be metonymy: money for dressmaking and other domestic expenses;[1] just as pocket money is not necessarily kept in a pocket.

    But this made me wonder about the less obvious origins of “in a nutshell”. Apparently, in classical times craftsmen would literally write the content of entire books in tiny script on the shell of a nut.[2] Hence, by extension: writing within a confined space; and the more figurative current usage: a précis. So, a very poetic ancient origin for a mundane contemporary phrase.

    Another interesting category of figurative words is those whose literal meanings are almost forgotten, such as “abysmal” (like an abyss). People love to adapt words and extend analogies, but we also cling to phrases long after we have forgotten their roots.

    [1] (pin meaning “decorative clasp”)

    [2] (Pliny the Elder referring to the Iliad being written on a parchment that fitted within a walnut shell)

  10. Lane says:

    I live in New York; I’ve only paid the proverbial arm and a leg rent. I’d never heard of the peppercorn rent…

  11. missjane says:

    It’s common enough in Australia, in not-for-profit and NGO admin anyway. Governments lease or rent property to charities or NGOs for minimal rent ($1/month, for example). I’ve also seen it occur in some church groups – the parent body receives ‘rent’ from a subsidiary or associated organisation.

  12. Stan says:

    Rich: Very interesting about in a nutshell. It’s like a folk etymology, but I guess not. On extending analogies and forgetting roots, my post Depending on metaphor at Macmillan Dictionary Blog might be of interest.

    Lane: Thanks for reporting. I feel I’ve been missing out!

    missjane: That’s good to know. I assume you mean that the phrase is common, not just the practice.

  13. missjane says:

    Yes; not in the legal language or formal documents, but in describing the arrangements.

  14. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Discovered this interesting little anecdote on a cursory Wiki-Search of “peppercorn rent”, yesterday:

    “The Masonic Lodge of St. George’s, Bermuda, rents the Old State House as their lodge for the annual sum of a single peppercorn, presented to the Governor of Bermuda on a velvet cushion atop a silver platter, in an annual ceremony performed since 1816 on or about April 23.”

    The notion of the diminutive “peppercorn” as representing either a literal, or purely abstract/ symbolic rate of paltry legal tender (as in say “peppercorn rent”), got me musing about the extreme opposite end of the world currency continuum*; namely, those curious, often gigantic circular sculpted limestone/ calcite rocks (with a large hole hewn through the middle) called rai stones, traditionally used, for centuries, by the Micronesian islanders of Yap as legitimate legal tender, or more abstractly, as symbolic markers of social status, or hierarchy within the tribe, or clan.

    The largest of these rai stones have measured close to 12-feet in diameter, and weigh in excess of 8,000 pounds. Clearly, the folks on Yap wouldn’t be carrying these hefty ‘coins’ around in some palm-fiber change-purse slung over the hip. HA!

    Traditionally, various types of prized local shells were used as day-to-day currency back in the day, prior to the advent of ‘modern’ paper currency and coinage in more recent years. (Interestingly, on the current Yap paper bills, their rai stone is said to be prominently displayed.)

    *Not that there is actually a “world currency continuum”. (Made that one up.) But hopefully you folk get my drift?

  15. Elissa says:

    A not-for-profit organisation I’m involved with pays a peppercorn rent. It actually says something like “one peppercorn annually” in the lease. They’ve never asked for it though… (This is in Australia)

  16. Stan says:

    Alex: Unlike peppercorns, rai stones are famously hard to misplace: there is no hole-in-a-pocket big enough to lose them through.

    Elissa: Interesting. Thanks for letting me know.

  17. […] Carey looked at peppercorn rent and the controversy that has arisen in the UK when “a Teesside school principal asked parents to […]

  18. rachsmith says:

    Funny – I’ve been researching a piece on peppercorns ( and was discussing ‘peppercorn rent’ with my colleague. Got bogged down in discussion – because peppercorn rent means nominal rent. But then peppercorns were expensive in medieval Europe…!

  19. Rosann says:

    Peppercorn hire is a byword in its own right, dating aback several centuries, acceptation a actual low

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