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The meaning of "the Ten Commandments" is clear (see Wikipedia for example). Also, Oxford Dictionaries show "broke" means "Having completely run out of money".

But I don't understand the meaning of the phrase. So, could you please tell me what is the meaning of

"be broker than the Ten Commandments"

The text is here:

When the semester ended I returned to Buck’s Peak. In a few weeks BYU would post grades; then I’d know if I could return in the fall. I filled my journals with promises that I would stay out of the junkyard. I needed money—Dad would have said I was broker than the Ten Commandments—so I went to get my old job back at Stokes.

Educated by Tara Westover

39

This is an ungrammatical idiom that is also (deliberately) confusing meanings. Broker, in this case, is a construction that is intended to mean more broke, which could be said to be meaningless, as broke, in the meaning of insolvent, not having money (implied by the preceding phrase I needed money...), doesn’t have a comparative or superlative. However, the meaning of broker as applied to the Ten Commandments is a reference to the Biblical story, in which Moses smashed the stone tablets on which they had been engraved - thus implying the meaning of broken, damaged, in pieces. This is another meaning that really doesn’t have a comparative or superlative, but the intent would be to suggest that whatever is broker than the Ten Commandments is broken into smaller pieces than the tablets had been.

Grammatically, it would be more broke if it were possible for insolvency to have a comparative; more broken if the state of being destroyed as the tablets were could have a comparative.

The intent of the phrase quoted in your question—I was broker than the Ten Commandments—is to suggest that the speaker’s need for money was very intense, more so than one is assumed normally to assume is necessary.

(@Tᴚoɯɐuo reminds me that “Sinners break those commandments in a different sense”; that actually adds another level of meaning to add to the confusion: broker, meaning more (often, frequently) violated.)

  • 19
    +1. Sinners also break those commandments in a different sense. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 25 '18 at 18:03
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo - Which gives another sense to broker: more (often) broken. Good reminder. – Jeff Zeitlin May 25 '18 at 18:05
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    Tara Westover, the writer, has mentioned Dad is a fanatic Mormon. He belives that most of people are gentiles. For example she says that: "There was scarcely a person in the church that Dad hadn’t called a gentile" (Educated p.84) On the other hand, in Dad's view the people often are breaking the Ten Commandments. – Peace May 25 '18 at 19:57
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    I think @Tᴚoɯɐuo's understanding is what was intended: referring to the Ten Commandments being disobeyed often, rather than referring to Moses smashing the stone tablets. – LarsH May 25 '18 at 21:03
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    No idea where you get the idea that a monosyllable slang term grammatically requires more instead of -er. The OED is silent on the point but 'broker' has been the more common form for the entirety of the English language. – lly May 26 '18 at 5:42
30

A phrase common in the 1930s. “'Listen, bud, I'm flat broke. I'm broker'n the Ten Commandments". (broker than, facetious / jocular usage meaning "more broke" than).

That's to say, "Dad liked his little joke", even if it was a bit "stale" (his implication: You tell me you're broke as often as people break the Ten Commandments - a lot).

Any native speaker would recognise the "wordplay" here, even though it's not a "valid" usage.

  • Nice find there. – Weather Vane May 25 '18 at 18:03
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    @Weather Vane: I'm still racking my brains trying to figure out exactly why the -er comparative suffix doesn't work with broke. I think maybe because it's a past participle verb form being used adjectivally. All I know is it must be "incorrect", and we must all know that, otherwise the saying wouldn't be funny in the first place. – FumbleFingers May 25 '18 at 18:08
  • I used to work with someone who frequently asked "who's the bestest?" although that is slightly different. – Weather Vane May 25 '18 at 18:10
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    @MatthewCrumley "funner" is debatable. I was raised with it being flat wrong. – TemporalWolf May 25 '18 at 22:22
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    @Matthew Broke is a single-syllable adjective, that’s the problem. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 27 '18 at 19:41
10

It is a play on words. Broke in US slang means without any money. It is often used hyperbolically to mean with very little money. Thus, used in this slang sense, broke cannot logically have a comparative form. So that is joke number 1.

The Ten Commandments are not something to which money ever belongs. So appearing to use broke in the slang sense about the Ten Commandments is absurd. That is joke number 2.

But of course the Ten Commandments can be broken in the sense of violated. One may believe that they are violated millions of times a day and so amount to very little.

So joke number 3 is to compare the monetary situation with humanity's moral situation, which is as ridiculously inapt as weighing an elephant in micrograms.

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    "broke" in the sense of "lacking money" absolutely has a comparative form. One person can have very little money, and another person can have even less money. – Acccumulation May 25 '18 at 19:59
  • A person may also find himself in need of money beyond what's possessed more or less frequently than another. "I'm broke more often than the Ten Commandments are broken" would be grammatically and semantically correct, but far less eloquent. – supercat May 25 '18 at 22:01
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    @Accumulation If the meaning is without money it cannot have a comparative form. – Jeff Morrow May 27 '18 at 1:24
4

As Tara Westover enter image description here, the writer, has mentioned Dad is a fanatic Mormon. He belives that most of people are gentiles. For example she says that: "There was scarcely a person in the church that Dad hadn’t called a gentile" (Educated p.84) On the other hand, in Dad's view the people often are breaking the Ten Commandments

So:

A/1- The Ten Commandments are broken by the sinners.(As FumbleFingers mentioned)

A/2- The Ten Commandments were broken by Moses himself. (As Jeff Zeitlin mentioned)

B- The writer is intensely broke(without money)

c- (=A+B) The writer is broker than The Ten Commandments.

Note: Broke has a comparative. For example we can say: - I'm broker than you, so don't try asking money from me. (see for example urbandictionary)

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    Urban Dictionary is not a reliable authority on standard use of English. It is an excellent source of slang and very informal usages (which may or may not catch on). 'broker' is very nonstandard (which certainly adds to the humor of the phrase). – Mitch May 27 '18 at 13:03
2

"Broker" in this case means--or is supposed to mean--"more broken". The sentence plays on the fact that one or more of the Ten Commandments are often broken and that "broke" means "without money". So the sentence is a jocular--I won't say witty--way of expressing pennilessness of the person it's aimed at. In this regard, it's like the way comedian Jack Benny described his blue eyes as "... bluer than the thumb of a cross-eyed carpenter." (The joke in this case is, of course, that a carpenter holds nails with a finger and thumb, and a cross-eyed carpenter trying to drive in a nail would be likely to miss the nail and hit his thumb with his hammer, bruising the digit badly.)

1

Broke according to Cambridge Dictionary means without money.

So broker means less money than that, and the phrase tells something about father's opinion of the Ten Commandments (otherwise he would have used another phrase).

  • 5
    This answer completely misses the pun – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 25 '18 at 19:37
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft thanks for that wisdom, but as a native speaker I understand the inferences. Do you realise OP changed the question after receiving answers? I responded to the first posting, when he didn't know what broke means. – Weather Vane May 25 '18 at 19:43
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    Whether or not you got the pun (which was present in the unedited question) is irrelevant. It's a vital part of understanding the sentence, and you didn't explain it. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 25 '18 at 20:00
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Peace May 25 '18 at 22:09

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