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Peppercorn sum

Posted by Lawguy on December 17, 2002

In Reply to: Peppercorn sum posted by James Briggs on December 10, 2002

: : This phrase I think means a small or insignificant amount of money in respect to the item being referenced. Any idea on the etymology?

: Literally what it says. Back in the old days pepper was very expensive. Small sums could be paid in peppercorns. As these became progressively cheaper, then so did the value paid in this currency until, today, it means that only a token sum is paid. It's often used in the form 'peppercorn rent'.

It has nothing to do with pepper being expensive. At common law there is a long-standing rule against purely gratuitous contracts, meaning those where only one party has any obligations. To get around this rule, a convention was established whereby the other party would agree to give something meaningless in exchange, hence the peppercorn. If you really need the whole story, try any history of the law of contract.

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