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"Déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul" is a very common expression in French, which applies in many situations whereby one satisfies a need by shuffling resources and thereby creating yet another need.

As it happens this is just one of many similar expressions used in various European Languages.

  • English "Rob Peter to pay Paul".
  • German "Peter rauben Paulus zu zahlen".
  • Italian "Rubare a Pietro per dare a Paolo".

Yet the origin provided by wiktionary for the English version involves Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome and Saint Paul's Cathedral in London as shown in this recent question on EL&U.

Could it be that the English expression is the origin of the German, Italian and French ones or are there all descendants of an older one in which case the explanation supplied by wiktionary should be interpreted as a localised version only?

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I want to note that the German expression cannot be too common, because I know the English one and I don't know the German one (which is my native language). This would fit with the fact that Italians and English people would be most emotionally involved in a transaction between Rome and London. (Does it have a more positive connotation in English than in Italian?) –  Phira Aug 29 '11 at 12:39
    
thei, thanks a lot for this clarification. May be @Alenanno can also tell us whether the Italian counterpart is rare or frequent. –  Alain Pannetier Aug 29 '11 at 13:56
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

L'expression « déshabiller saint Pierre pour habiller saint Paul » a bien son origine dans Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, mais est bien postérieure à la Bible.

D'après le Dictionnaire des Expressions et Locutions figurées cette expression, qui date du XVIIe, viendrait de la parure des statues des saints dans les églises : jusqu'au XIXe siècle on avait la coutume de vêtir les statues des saints, mais les églises pauvres n'avaient pas les moyens de posséder des parures pour toutes les statues, et donc les mêmes vêtements servaient à saint Pierre et à saint Paul le jour de leur fête respective (et on peut supposer à d'autres saints aussi.)

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Et vu que saint Pierre et saint Paul sont célébrés le même jour, on voit bien que déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul est futile. –  Gilles Aug 31 '11 at 20:25
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Since Evpok suggests it comes from the Apostles, here is a proposition to explain it:

Paul was a missionary who traveled a lot, and depended quite a bit on the financial support of various churches. Pierre belonged to the church in Jerusalem, which was one of the poorest ones (compared to e.g. Ephesus), so taking from people in Jerusalem might make them even poorer. So you might have had to take Pierre's clothes in order to dress Paul.

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J'avais entendu je ne sais plus où que l'expression venait des relations difficiles au 11e/12e siècle entre l'abbaye de Westminster (construite "pour" Saint Pierre) et la cathédrale Saint Paul. L'argent pour la construction de Westminster aurait été détourné vers la cathédrale Saint Paul, d'où l'expression.

edit : Avec quelques recherches, je tombe là-dessus. Ce qui semble invalider cette hypothèse. Wikipedia reste prudente sur le sujet, mentionnant une relation possible entre Westminster et cette expression.

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Merci pour cette nouvelle interpretation. 1/ Je n'ai qu'une confiance limitée dans "phrases.co.uk". Comparer par exemple nitty-gritty chez "phrases" et chez "EL&U". 2/ j'ignorais complètement la version Westminster vs St Paul +1 pour cela. –  Alain Pannetier Aug 30 '11 at 5:41
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Le wiktionnaire says

L’expression complète est : « déshabiller saint Pierre pour habiller saint Paul ». Elle vient des deux apôtres de la Bible portant ces prénoms.


The whole expresion is "to undress saint Peter to dress saint Paul". It comes from the two apostles.

So we have the beginning of a different explanation. Perhaps from an event in the bible?

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