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Pecunia non olet

The urine tax

Posted 2/15/22

Some of you may have wondered whether my cat was walking across the keyboard while I was typing the title of my column, Pecunia Non Olet. It's a Latin phrase that translates into “Money has no smell.” So why have I chosen that as the title of my column?  

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Pecunia non olet

The urine tax

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Some of you may have wondered whether my cat was walking across the keyboard while I was typing the title of my column, Pecunia Non Olet. Or those of you who went to or have kids in law school or medical school may have detected something vaguely familiar in those funny-looking words. Pecunia non olet is a Latin phrase that translates into “Money has no smell.” So why have I chosen that as the title of my column?  

The words are ascribed to the Roman emperor Vespasian (69 – 79 AD). In an effort to increase the tax take of his empire, Vespasian imposed several levies, one of which was on urine from public toilets. Though its commercial use has thankfully fallen out of favor in the last few centuries, urine once had several economic uses, primarily in tanning. Vespasian’s son Titus, who would succeed Vespasian as the reigning emperor during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was put off by the malodorous tax. Holding up a gold coin in his defense, Vespasian asked whether the scent of the coin offended his son’s senses, to which Titus replied that it did not. When Vespasian pointed out that the money came from urine, the phrase Pecunia non olet was born.  

The phrase generally is used to express the belief that money is money, regardless of where it came from. While the phrase most often is associated with money acquired from dubious sources, I like the phrase in a more unprejudiced connotation: there are many [legitimate] ways to make money. And this is meant to be a general business, money, economics, and investment column.  

In the spring of 2020, the owner of this newspaper suffered severe wind damage to its Shelbyville, TN property, with the effect that employees practically had to carry umbrellas inside the building that summer on rainy days. The roof ultimately was replaced at a cost below the final insurance payout, and in a plague year the surplus payout was very welcome.  

To people who say I was lucky, I say, “Pecunia non olet.” 

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