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Hey, Matt:

If all of the proceeds of Paul Newman's food line goes to charity, how does anybody who works there make any money?

--Ashley Chafin, the net

Instead of Paul Newman, a certified icon, let's take a radio commercial the elves and I heard a few days ago by a company that will tow away your old junker car, donate it to your favorite charity, and you take the tax deduction. They too say "the proceeds" go directly to your charity. So, they pick up your $500 car, and $500 goes directly to Save the Snails, right? As Ashley points out, of course not.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. We think we know what the word "proceeds" means. Look it up in most dictionaries, and you will see something to the effect of "money or goods gained from a commercial or fundraising venture"-- the total amount gained. It has had that meaning and only that meaning for 400 years. But the world of professional shuckers and jivers has found a loophole and now uses the term to mean the net gain, after some unlimited amount of expenses are deducted. The Merriam-Webster Tenth Collegiate dictionary gives both (contradictory) definitions, as do some business dictionaries.

The guys who pick up your junker car will donate the net receipts to your favorite charity, after they take their cut. But if they said so in the ad, you might donate your car directly, without the useless middleman, so your favorite charity would get full benefit. Instead, they hide behind an obscure definition most of us don't know. Pretty weasely, if you ask me. In the case of Paul Newman, of course, unless you want to grow your own popcorn or make your own salad dressing, he is a useful middleman, therefore less weasely.

According to Merriam-Webster, they added the second definition in 1961 based on print references that go back into the 1940s. For example, from the Handbook of Financial Mathematics (1940, Prentice-Hall), "The proceeds of a note consist of the sum of money remaining after the discount has been deducted from the value. They are what the borrower actually receives." What started out as a definition used only in the banking industry now seems to apply to any chunk of cash. So beware the wiley noun "proceeds," nearly as misleading as the adjective "nonprofit."

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