Pay the Piper: Meaning, Origin & Correct Usage

What does it mean when someone says you must pay the piper? Discover the meaning and origin of the phrase with our guide.

We all have to pay the piper or face the consequences of our missteps. This age-old idiom has survived for at least two centuries despite the fact that most people nowadays have never seen a piper in person, much less paid one.

According to, to pay the piper means to “pay the consequences for self-indulgent behavior.” 

This idiom, like many others, aims to present the listener with a form of condensed wisdom. The central idea is that your life cannot all be careless enjoyment and that you must fulfill your duties or face the consequences. 

If you want to know more about how to use idioms, metaphors, and so on, read our guide on how to use figurative language.

Pay The Piper – The Myth Behind the Saying

Pay The Piper - The Myth Behind the Saying
One good example of using pay the piper in a sentence “She spent all of her savings on holidays, so she’s paying the piper now”.

A piper is a person who plays on a pipe or a bagpipe. The expression “pay the piper” comes from the tale of the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a town in Germany’s region of Lower Saxony. Legend has it the piper was hired to clear out the rats from the town, which he did by luring them away with a song. 

Once his task was complete, the piper demanded payment, but the townspeople refused. To get his revenge, the piper played another tune, this time stealing all of the children in the town. The story highlights the importance of keeping your promises and commitments, or else consequences will come knocking. 

The medieval legend was picked up by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who traveled Europe collecting tales of folklore. More than 209 stories were collated and retold by the duo in their 1812 book Grimm’s Fairy Tales

The tale of the Pied Piper, however, may be more than just a myth. An inscription on a house in Hamelin dating to 1604 suggests, as cited by a BBC article, that on 26 June 1284, around 130 children disappeared from the village of Hamelin. 

The idiom’s survival and popularity can also be partly attributed to English poet and playwright Robert Browning. In 1849, he authored a poem titled The Pied Piper of Hamelin, inspired by the Grimm brothers’ story, further increasing the popularity of the myth.

What is an Idiom?

Before delving deeper into the origin and meaning behind the expression “pay the piper,” let us revisit the definition of idioms.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an idiom is an expression or phrase with a meaning that cannot be derived from the meanings of its components. Nothing in “pay” or “piper,” taken separately, suggests the idea of consequences or responsibility.  

Therefore, an idiom is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, its meaning can be derived culturally and sustained through continued use.

Some examples of idioms are:

  • Pay through the nose – which suggests that you have to pay an excessive amount of money for something.
  • Play hardball – which means to act tough or to negotiate in an uncompromising way.
  • Barking up the wrong tree – which means to pursue the wrong course of action.
  • Bite the hand that feeds – which means to act against your own interests or act ungratefully.

Importance and Usage of Idioms

Idioms carry a cultural meaning and can pinpoint the user to a certain country or region, as some idioms are specific to specific geographic locations. They can also be used to convey complex ideas with more ease, especially in speaking.

Some idioms have been abandoned or are used infrequently; therefore, their meaning nowadays is a complete mystery to many people. This in itself is a reason for individuals to remain well-read in order to retain such cultural gems. Some examples are:

  • Know your onions – meaning being knowledgeable about a certain subject.
  • Nail one’s colors to the mast – a British saying that means being open about something.
  • Mad as a hatter – an idiom meant to signal that one is insane.

Connected Meanings, Idioms

Aside from “pay the piper,” the story left us with “pied piper,” which, according to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, is often used to describe a particularly persuasive person or trend-setter. 

Another connected idiom is “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” which means that the person paying or making the effort for something is the one who will be in charge of it or receive its benefits. The meaning of this idiom is quite different from that of “pay the piper,” signaling not the idea of consequences but the rightful attribution of authority. 

Nevertheless, “pay the piper” is a more popular saying, commonly used now to refer to the consequences of our own decisions or actions. 

Interestingly, there is a diverging theory regarding the origin of “pay the piper.” According to this theory, published on, the idiom comes from the medieval custom of paying a musician at the end of their performance. Despite not wanting to part with their money, the crowd that enjoyed the music must still pay for its entertainment.

Pay the Piper Synonyms 

Other phrases have a similar meaning to that of “pay the piper” and signal the fact that consequences must always be faced. These are:

  • Face the music
  • Take one’s medicine
  • Take the rap
  • Bite the bullet
  • Come to grips with
  • Face up to

Using Pay the Piper in a Sentence

Here are some examples of how to use pay the piper in a sentence correctly:

  1. I’m exhausted, I stayed up all night watching a new TV show, so now I have to pay the piper
  2. He had to pay the piper after ignoring his responsibilities for so long.
  3. She spent all of her savings on holidays, so she’s paying the piper now.
  4. The government deferred investments for years, and they paid the piper when the bridge collapsed. 
  5. Listen to your body and the signals it gives, or pay the piper later.


  • Radu has been writing for a decade as a copywriter, journalist, and academic writer. He was nominated for the European Press Prize in 2019 and authored a book on campaign finance and corporate personhood in the United States. Books are Radu’s passion, particularly science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Check out his YouTube channel.