Pay It Forward Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It?

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Pay it forward is a commonly used phrase. Whether you’ve read it in a book, seen it on the news or social media, or have been told to do it, chances are you’ve heard this phrase before —- it’s time to add another word to your word list. 

Let’s learn what pay it forward means and how to use it. 

What Does Pay It Forward Mean?

Even if you don’t know what paying it forward means, you may perform this act of kindness in your daily life already. Pay it forward Is a phrase or expression that means to return one act of kindness with another —- the pay it forward movement is meant to cause a ripple effect of kind acts in the hopes of making the world a better place.

If someone does something good or kind for you, instead of repaying them for the good deed, you can instead pass your own good act onto somebody else. You don’t pay them back — you pay it forward.

An example of paying it forward would be buying a stranger coffee at a coffee shop after someone else bought a coffee for you.

While people have been paying it forward since the beginning of time, the actual phrase wasn’t coined until 1916, according to Coining a phrase means the invention of a saying or expression that is unique and new. 

Many famous phrases we use in our everyday language were coined or invented by beloved authors. For example, the phrase catch-22 was coined by author Joseph Heller. Heller used this phrase as the title of his best-selling novel, published in 1961. 

Pay It Forward: Word by Word 

The easiest way to thoroughly understand a phrase is by breaking it down into individual words. Here’s pay it forward, word by word. 

Pay (verb): Pay is a verb. It is the act of giving someone money or currency that is due to them. Payment isn’t always given in the form of money. It is something given in the form of an act. Each payment transaction can be unique to a given scenario. 

It (pronoun): It refers to an object that is easily identified or mentioned previously. 

Forward (adverb): Forward is essentially a direction. For example, someone can be forward-facing. It can also mean making progress; for example, they’re moving forward.

What Is the Origin and History of Pay It Forward?

While the phrase is somewhat new, the pay it forward movement or concept is an ancient Greek theory. It was first found in ancient Greek literature but was also seen in Benjamin Franklin’s letters. Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the pay it forward concept as well.

The Greek theory claims that someone shouldn’t extend benefits to a person that benefits them, but instead give to someone who hasn’t brought advantage to them. The forward idea is to continuously pass on good deeds. 

While our ancestors were paying it forward for centuries before us, it wasn’t until the publishing of Lily Hardy Hammond’s 1916 novel The Garden of Delight that the phrase was officially coined. 

It wasn’t until later years when Robert Heinlein’s book Between Plants was published that the phrase gained the popularity it deserved. 

This simple phrase motivated Heinlein to start a humanitarian nonprofit organization where teaching the practice of paying it forward was the main objective. 

The phrase also motivated author Catherine Ryan Hyde to write an award-winning novel following a young lead character that launched a pay it forward movement and campaign. From this novel, Hyde began a pay it forward foundation, where they used the funds her book earned to pay her good fortune forward to the less fortunate. 

When Should I Use the Phrase Pay It Forward?

Considering pay it forward simply means to return a favor to someone by offering an act of kindness to another person, there are only select instances you can use this phrase. 

  • After you’ve performed an act of kindness but want nothing in return, then you cam say pay it forward.
  • Use this phrase if a friend feels guilty about a gift or favor they’ve received. For example, you can let them know they’ll have a chance to pay it forward in the future. 

Are There Synonyms for Pay It Forward? 

If you adore the concept of paying it forward but aren’t the biggest fan of the phrase itself, here are a few synonyms you can use in place of the phrase pay it forward. 

Knowing synonyms for any word is beneficial as it keeps your vocabulary broad — meaning you won’t need to repeat words:

  • Repay in kindness
  • Pass on 
  • Share the love
  • Return kindness
  • Share kindness
  • Kind deed
  • Interchange 
  • Offer
  • Contribute 
  • Pass it on
  • Alternative giving 

Are There Antonyms for Pay It Forward?

Just as it’s good to know the synonyms of words, knowing their antonyms is good, too. 

An antonym is a different word with opposite meanings than a specific word.

  • Get nothing in return 
  • Lend 
  • Payback
  • Haggle 
  • Take back 
  • Negative reciprocity 

Examples of Paying It Forward 

  • Holding the elevator door for a stranger
  • Creating a go-fund-me page
  • Donating to charity 
  • Volunteer 
  • Pick up trash 
  • Smile at a stranger 
  • Give a compliment 
  • Loading a stranger’s grocery bags into their car at the grocery store.

Main Takeaways 

The phrase pay it forward is a creative way to explain doing a good deed with no strings attached. It started in literature, and the phrase has provoked a ripple effect of random acts of kindness and has inspired many people around the world to help others. 


Catch-22 |

RECIPROCITY | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary