Pay one’s dues

Pay one’s dues is an idiom that has undergone an interesting evolution. An idiom is a word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom pay one’s dues, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

To pay one’s dues may mean to discharge a moral debt. It also means to work hard in ways that are unpleasant or to struggle in order to learn one’s craft or to earn the right to advance. When someone pays his dues, he suffers in the present in order to reap the benefits, later. The expression pay ones dues may be used literally to mean pay a fee to belong to a club or organization; it first came into use as an idiom in the 1600s to refer to a physical or moral debt. In the mid-1900s, the expression pay one’s dues came into use in American English to mean to endure unpleasant work or circumstances in order to learn one’s craft or earn the right to advance. Related phrases are pays one’s dues, paid one’s dues, paying one’s dues.


The one-time running back proved himself to be a quick study at linebacker, and a willing participant to pay his dues. (Sports Illustrated)

Kennedy, who was first elected to Congress in 2012, has built a career honoring Democratic leadership and making sure to pay his dues instead of leveraging his famous last name to head up influential committees. (Boston Herald)

Like the other two men, Josh has paid his dues on the rodeo circuit, so it wasn’t as though he was afraid of getting bucked off. (The Pueblo Chieftan)

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