Money or profits.
[Middle English, from Latin lucrum; see lau- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Word History: In the 1520s, William Tyndale made an influential translation of the New Testament from Greek into English. Many of Tyndale's English renderings of Greek phrases were considered so apt that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible reused them eighty years later, thus ensuring their familiarity to speakers of Modern English. Among the familiar phrases that Tyndale apparently coined in his translation are the powers that be (Romans 13:1) and filthy lucre (Titus 1:7,11). This last expression occurs as part of the translation of Greek phrases like aiskhrou kerdous kharin "for the sake (kharin) of shameful (aiskhrou) gain (kerdous)." When translating these words, Tyndale was probably guided by the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments that had been the standard edition of the Bible in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. In the Vulgate, the passage was rendered with the Latin words turpis lucrī grātiā, "for the sake (grātiā) of shameful (turpis) gain (lucrī)." It was only natural that Tyndale, working in the early Reformation, would remember the wording of the familiar Latin translation. As a result, he rendered the phrase as because of filthy lucre, using the English word lucre, which comes from Latin lucrum, "material gain, profit,"—the same Latin word that appears in the form lucrī in the Vulgate. But we cannot attribute the modern pejorative connotations of lucre wholly to Tyndale's influence. In Latin itself, lucrum could be used to mean "avarice." When the Latin word was borrowed into Middle English as lucre, it was often used in the simple neutral sense "material gain, profit." Already in the 1300s, however, lucre began to appear in contexts favoring the development of pejorative overtones, such as in Chaucer's phrase from the Prioress's Tale: foule usure and lucre of vileynye ("foul usury and lucre of villainy").
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
The American Heritage Dictionary Blog
Check out our blog, updated regularly, for new words and revised definitions, interesting images from the 5th edition, discussions of usage, and more.