“Splashed Out”

Jan Freeman, former language columnist for the Boston Globe, is one of the sharpest observers I know, and when she passes on a tip, it’s always worth listening to. So it was the other day when, on Twitter (@Jan_Freeman) she directed me to an article about holiday tipping in the November issue of Real Simple Magazine. The paragraph in question:

Rounding up to the nearest dollar on your coffee run is not necessary, but it’s a nice gesture, especially if you’re a regular or a barista has gone out of their way to make your visit special. “If they’ve really splashed out on the latte art or given you a great recommendation for walking around the neighborhood, go ahead and make it at least 20 percent,” says Emilio Baltodano, founder of Eleva Coffee in Brooklyn, New York.

And the phrase in question is “splashed out.” It was a new one to me, and when I looked into it I confirmed (as Jan suspected) that it wasn’t being used in the traditional way. The phenomenon of Americans slightly or not so slightly changing the meaning of a British expression isn’t a new one: see “cheers.” On the blog, I label these terms “shape-shifters.” Mr. Baltodano used it to indicate making a big effort, but the OED confirms that’s not the traditional British meaning.

d. colloquial. To spend (money) extravagantly or ostentatiously. Frequently const. adverbs, esp. in to splash (money) out on (something). Also absol.

1934   Times 7 Mar. 7/5   Public money ought not to be splashed about in this manner without grave and searching examination by the House of Commons.
1946   F. Sargeson That Summer 82   After we’d splashed on a talkie we went home.
1960   S. Barstow Kind of Loving ii. ii. 170   I splash eight-and-six on a pound box of chocolates and send them with a little note.
1973   Courier & Advertiser (Dundee) 1 Mar. 2/2   Allied now plan to splash out an extra £150,000 on advertising.
1978   Morecambe Guardian 14 Mar. 17/2   Splash out on something new to wear; the result will be worthwhile.


So it seems to have started as “splashed” or “splashed about,” with the “splashed out” form taking hold in the 1970s. Judging by the New York Times, it’s gotten some use on these shores, mostly in reference to business or sports moguls shelling out cash. From 2016: Disney chief Bob Iger “splashed out $1 billion for a one-third stake in Major League Baseball’s streaming technology, with the option to buy it out.” 2017: former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer “splashed out $2 billion for the Los Angeles Clippers in August 2014.” And in 2018, “teams in the decidedly mediocre Chinese Super League splashed out more than $400 million on international stars like Carlos Tevez and Oscar, outspending even the English Premier League.”

As far as I can tell, it’s the precise equivalent of the traditional U.S. “shell out,” the moral being, never underestimate the appeal to journos of elegant variation.

Update: A lively discussion in the comments has persuaded me that, in Britain at least, “splashed out” is not the same as “shelled out.” I don’t agree that “shelled out” always or even usually implies reluctance, but, clearly, “splashed out” conveys enthusiasm (sometimes deployed ironically) or splurging. I still maintain, however, that the three New York Times examples are equivalent to “shelled out,” suggesting that U.S. use of “splashed out” has shape-shifted it a bit.

15 thoughts on ““Splashed Out”

  1. I think you’re wrong. The British example is the barista has really “splashed out” as in given his/her all, and so, then you would “shell out” a good tip. A team shells out for a pitcher who splashed out several superb games. Right?

      1. No I think Mr. Yagoda is correct. I’ve been in the UK over 5 years and I’ve only ever heard “splashed out” in reference to spending money, never in reference to effort.

  2. I think I used the word “splurged” in my day for your “splashed out.” When I read your piece, “splash” brought to mind a day at the beach and keeping an eye on the kiddies! Thank you so much for your splendid posts. Would you place me on your list? May D Gatsby465@mac.com Many many thanks! And Happy Holidays to you and yours …

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. True, it’s not really the equivalent of ‘shell out’. I would say that when someone ‘splashes out’, they do so with a good degree of willingness or even enthusiasm.

    2. I agree. So:
      “My fridge broke down at weekend, so I’ve had to shell out for a new one.”
      “It’s my birthday, so I’ve splashed out on a stalls ticket at the Royal Opera House.”

  3. In Australia the difference between shelling out and splashing out is the same as ellispratt notes in the UK. Shelling out is not fun (eg paying bills), but splashing out (usually “splashing some cash” here) is fun spending.

  4. I would normally have expected some degree of conspicuous consumption to be involved in “splashing out”.

    A splash out on a coffee would be ironic … but on some fancy, overpriced trainers, hell yeah!

    The question of splashing out on swimming lessons, therefore has to do with how necessary they are. If you want be a lifeguard, it’s not. If fancy the lifeguard, yes.

  5. OK, I first learned the term “splashed out” when I lived in England in the early ’80s. I agree with May that it’s more like “splurge” than “shell out.” And it’s definitely NOT done by billionaire team owners. You “splash out” when you don’t have money for something but you buy it anyway. I think the perfect example is in the Squeeze song “Vicky Verky,” about two working class teenage lovers:
    “They really trooped the colors
    When walking with each other
    And all her mates would giggle
    As ladylike she’d wiggle
    All along the high street
    They’d splash out on an ice cream … “

    1. I agree, “splurged” is a better equivalent than “shelled out”. “Shelled out” implies that the payment is made grudgingly. “Splashed” or “splashed out” and “splurged” all imply spending freely or ostentatiously. The usage in the example, of the barista going the extra mile in preparing refreshments, is quite unusual.

  6. What does data tell us? The wording surrounding ‘shell out’ often suggests that the payment is grudging. In the Oxford corpus I consulted there were 25,000 examples. The most common collocation was ‘willing’ often preceded by ‘if’, e.g. ‘It even has WiFi and Bluetooth support, if you ‘re willing to shell out a bit extra for adapters.’ Other related collocates are ‘unwilling, gladly, happily, reluctant, prepared’, all of which suggest the same. The lemma splash + out had 8,760 hits, of which just over 4,000 were British and 1,000 U.S. The top collocates to the left are ‘spenders, big spenders, Abramovich, shoppers, reportedly.’ To the right, ‘luxuries, lavish, big-ticket’, but most of all multiples of millions of pounds.

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