Posted by: Dutch | December 20, 2009

Cooking the books

Meaning

The deliberate distorting of a firm’s financial accounts, often with the aim of avoiding the payment of tax.

Origin

Cooking seems a rather odd choice of word to convey fraud. The Oxford English Dictionary lists a dozen or so meanings of the verb cook, ranging from ‘prepare opium for use’ to ‘make the call of a cuckoo’ and, of course, ‘prepare food by the action of heat’. Tucked away at the bottom there is also the meaning – ‘present in a surreptitiously altered form’ and it is that use of cook that was used in the coinage of the phrase. The allusion appears to be the changing of one thing into another, as in the conversion of food ingredients into meals.

Cooking the books

This usage dates back to Tudor England and it was used by the Earl of Strafford in his Letters and dispatches, 1636:

“The Proof was once clear, however they have cook’d it since.”

The verb was in common use by the 18th century and its meaning was used explicitly with regard to finance in Tobias Smollett’s The adventures of Peregrine Pickle, 1751:

“Some falsified printed accounts, artfully cooked up, on purpose to mislead and deceive.”

Apart from in the expression ‘cooking the books’ this use of ‘cook’ has disappeared from the language and the expression, while still being used occasionally, had itself became increasingly uncommon throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The preferred euphemism for the manipulation of financial statements came to be ‘creative accounting’. This is first recorded in the 1960s and is attributed to the US comedian Irwin Corey, as in this example from the Middlesboro Daily News, May 1968:

‘Professor’ Irwin Corey claims his CPA [Certified Public Accounts] isn’t exactly crooked – but the government’s questioning him about his “creative accounting”.

The numerous corporate fraud cases of the 1990s turned public opinion against the semi-admiring tone of ‘creative accounting’ and journalists stopped using it. That, and the transformation of bookshops, which now seem to sell more coffee and cakes than they do books, has brought about a revival of the term ‘cooking the books’, which looks like staying with us for some years to come.

– Our sincere thanks to Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder

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