This is from the BBC Earth Lab YouTube channel, Life Survives in Extreme Icy Conditions | Earth | BBC Earth Lab (see: 0:12-0:22)

And out here in the biting face of the cold, it's easy to imagine that the endless winter put pay to complex life on Earth.

I looked up "put pay" in several dictionaries. There are no entries in the form of "put pay" but there is a very close one in the form of "put paid".

So, are they both correct, or is the TV presenter using it wrongly?

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    FYI, as an American (Ohio), I've never heard of either phrasing. Astralbee's answer explains it, but we would not say that phrase and not know what it means. We would say end, terminate, or wipe-out instead in your original example, so it seems to be an idiom of regional use. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 21:33
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    @UnhandledExcepSean Could I just point out that Britain is not a "region" - it is a country, and the one where the English language had its origins. The expression "put paid to" is widely understood throughout the English-speaking world - the American dictionary, Merriam Webster, listing it - while marking it as "chiefly British". Clearly it belongs to the vast complement of English which is not in extensive use by the American public - though I think that the more literate and widely-read sections of American society will clearly appreciate its meaning.
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 22:05
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    This question had me on tender hooks for a while, but the answer seems to be a damp squid. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 10:49
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    @WS2 Not to denigrate Britain, but that is a region of the world just as the USA is a region. oed.com/search/dictionary/?scope=Entries&q=region You seem to take my comment as an attack on British English, but it was simply a comment that Americans don't widely use that phrase. The Google ngram site shows it is about five times more common in usage in British English and became a used phrase much earlier than it was in the US. This might be useful information for people running across this thread in the future. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 13:30
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    American here, and yeah, that phrase is pretty much nonsense to me. I'm sure some Americans know it but only the literate ones who reed they're bookz.
    – Thierry
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 20:51

4 Answers 4


"Put paid to..." is the correct idiom, but quite a few examples of "put pay to" can be found in literature, so BBC presenter Chris Packham is certainly not the first person to say it.

The origin of the phrase supposedly comes from the practice of stamping 'PAID' onto a bill which has been settled, finalising it. The idiom doesn't really work with anything but the past tense. A bill with 'PAY' on it sounds like it is still outstanding.

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    The earliest usage one lexicographer could find was from the Manitoba Morning Free Press, October 1905, “Wolverhampton Wanderers put paid to Bolton's account, the scores being: 2-0”. Use of the word “account” may have connected the phrase to the accounting metaphor “settling accounts” or “settling scores”: not only have you wrapped things up, you have done so to your satisfaction. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:53
  • google n-grams is probably more useful than a google books search here. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Tristan
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 12:59
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    @Tristan No, not in this kind of situation and definitely not this particular case. For a start, Google Ngrams IS a search of Google books. Ngrams are good for comparing the use of valid words and idioms, not usually wrong ones. And lastly, you have to consider what non-comparable examples the search will return. Click my link and you'll see the first result is not an example of this phrase used incorrectly although the few that follow are. These would skew the results of an ngram.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 15:11
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    Hmmm... After 34 years in Canada, and then 32 years in the US, that is not an idiom I am familiar with at all.
    – Flydog57
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 19:53
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    If you search Google Books more than half the examples of "put pay to" are of the form He put "pay to John" on the bill. NGrams isn't going to be as discerning.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 16:46

This is an error on the reporter’s side (occurs often while speaking.) According to Collin’s, Cambridge, and Merriam Webster, the correct form is “put paid to.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Word Origin

  • The correct and full answer. It's bizarre we don't simply delete questions about mistakes. The incredible amount of discussion and long-winded answers, created by questions about mistakes, simply confuses the OP and future readers.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 12:05
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    Quite so. Listening to the video you can hear the speaker say put paid to Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 19:40
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    @Fattie the answers (including this one) I see on this question are quite high quality and insightful by general Stack Exchange standards. Even supposing we agree that the reporter made a clear mistake, there is still an interesting underlying question about what the "proper" idiom is (insert here pages of diatribe about linguistic prescriptivism), what the etymology is to justify that usage, and why people might have a different perception. Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 22:48
  • Aside from that, it seems there's still an open question as to whether the error - presuming that we accept, prescriptively, that it is an error - was on the part of the speaker or in OP's transcription. Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 22:56
  • Karl, I'm afraid I can't agree. (1) I listened to some of the video in question. I trivially picked out at least 4 places where the speaker mis-speaks one thing or another (as with almost any spoken video, including even the highest budget movies) (2) The issue of the user's exact pronunciation, slurring, whatever, of some particular word in some random video from the millions of video in existence is: utterly irrelevant. (3) The issue of whether the machine generated close captions are accurate or not is: utterly, utterly irrelevant. Whilst YES the endless ramblings and asides are
    – Fattie
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 0:21

This is what we'd call an malapropism. The individual in question either misremembered the phrase, or misheard it, and thus said it differently than other listeners might expect. This often happens with homonyms, particularly when a listener doesn't know one of the words in the idiom. In "The IT Crowd", there is a skit where a character confuses "damp squid" for the proper "damp squib," not knowing that a "squib" is a small explosive.

Similarly, since English has various words that sound alike, you'll sometimes find phrases like "bury the lead" instead of "bury the lede," or "tow the line" instead of "toe the line." These have recently been coined eggcorns, and typically present themselves in written, rather than spoken words. This occurs because the idioms use homophones, words that can't be distinguished by hearing alone, requiring context.

  • English has a silent T and E in castle, it has a silent L in "almond" and "walk" (although I'm aware some Americans do pronounce the L in these words), a silent C in scent, a silent G in sign and a silent H in ghost and honest. A silent R in car and also a silent U in four. A silent B in comb and tomb, so now we have a silent D! What's one silent letter more? :)) :))
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 17:33
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    @Mari-LouA How do you pronounce "GHOT"? The answer is "fish". GH as in rough; o as in women, and T as in nation!
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 18:38
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    @WS2 I think that was Ghoti originally :-) Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 9:42
  • @RussellMcMahon You may well be right!
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 16:59
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    Eggcorns usually are distinguishable by a subtle difference in pronunciation. In my dialect, "eggcorn" itself is noticeably different from the original word "acorn" that it mimics (as a self-referential example). They're also narrower than simple misunderstandings (like "mondegreens" in music lyrics); a proper eggcorn comes with its own, plausible but false etymology. The case of "lede" is special as it's believed the spelling was deliberately invented for the purpose of the idiom. Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 22:54

It's possible that the reporter did say "put paid" but that the transcript is wrong.

I'm a New Zealander. I listened to the comment a number of times. In isolation it does sound like "pay", but my ear-brain system can infer "paid" having been said. No guarantees :-) .

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    Much as I want to hear "paid", I just can't. He's saying "pay", with not the slightest hint of the tongue flap that is often all that remains of a word-final /d/.
    – TonyK
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 13:11
  • @TonyK What flavour of English do you speak ? I agree that if it IS there it is very very minimal. But, my NZ brain will not allow it to be abent with complete certainty. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 13:32
  • South-east British English. I reckon it's your brain, not your ear!
    – TonyK
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 14:16
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    I'd guess that he's saying "paid", but the trailing 'd' is being elided in favour of the 't' of the next word. It's lazy speech that fails to clearly pronounce all syllables, rather than using the wrong word. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 22:07
  • It's a great point about the transcription. There are more and more quewtions on here where someone Eagerly! points out a typo in the subtitles of some idiotic youtube video. Infuriating.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 12:09

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