The History of Economics Embedded in English

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Michael Ferber

Speaking of Words

            I recently wrote about how older cultures are fossilized in our language, and gave examples such as “horse-power,” “astronaut,” “manufacturer,” and “oil.”  Today I would like to focus on words about finance and economics.  In 2008, for obvious reasons, I thought I had better learn more about economics and especially about capitalism, so I read a bunch of books and articles and took some notes.  But I found it helped me understand what I read if I considered its terms in the light of something I already knew something about, the history of languages, so I made a list of economic words in use today or in the past and looked up their origins.  In this column I’ll explain a few of them.  (If you would like the whole list, let me know.)

            Let’s start with “economics” itself.  When I was in school the girls all took “Home Economics.”  That phrase struck me as odd at the time, and I explained it to myself as a set of skills for managing a home “economically” or frugally.  I only learned much later that the phrase hearkened to oldest use of “economics,” which comes from a Greek word, oikonomia, which meant “management of the household.”  In Homer the oikos is the entire estate or establishment, not just the house: buildings, family, clients, servants, slaves, animals, croplands, and pastures.    In 18th-century English the sense of domestic management remained in use: one could still speak of a “private economy” or “an economy too sumptuous for one’s means.”  In the 19th century John Ruskin, evoking the etymology to show how “economics” had drifted from its real purpose, wrote, “All true economy is ‘Law of the house’.”  The phrase “political economy” appeared in the 18th century and since then the default sense of “economy” has come to be the organization of national or international goods and services, and “domestic” in this context now means “national.”  So the girls in their Home Ec classes were going back to the root of the matter.

            Several common words began as names of physical objects and then grew more abstract, a frequent semantic path for words of many kinds.  A “bank” was originally a “bench” (from the same root) on which money and ledgers were laid during a transaction.  A “budget” was originally a “pouch or bag,” from French bougette, from Latin bulga, meaning “leather sack.”  The Oxford English Dictionary reports that “The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in presenting his annual statement, was formerly said to open the budget.”  “Fiscal” comes from Latin fiscus, originally “basket,” then “purse,” then “state treasury.”  “Salary” derives from Latin salarium, or “money paid to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt”; “salt” is sal.  It’s fun to imagine the primitive economy as carried out by opening bags or baskets on a bench and exchanging what is in them for salt.

            As for “exchequer,” though we seldom use the word in America, it is related to “checkers” and “chess.”  The Old French word eschequier (“chess board),” named for the table cloth divided into squares (like “checkerboard” cloths today) with counters used for calculating sums, was used in the treasury or revenue office of the Norman kings of England.  “Chess,” by the way, is really the plural of “check,” which is what you say when you threaten your opponent’s king, because “check” actually means “king.”  It comes from the Persian word shah.  (The chesspiece “rook” is also Persian.)  “Checkmate” is shah mat, “the king is dead.”  But I digress.

The opposite semantic path, from abstract to concrete, is far less common, but it happened to the word “capital.”  Before it was a noun it was an adjective in phrases such as “capital stock” or “capital fund,” and it comes from capitalis, the Latin adjective based on caput, meaning “head,” the body part, but also the “head” or principal fund lent or borrowed.  That sounds like an originally concrete source, but capitalis became catel in Norman French, and then cattel in Middle English, where it meant “property”: the phrase “goods and cattels” was common.  Meanwhile in Parisian French capitalis became cheptel, with the sense “contract regarding livestock” and then “livestock” alone, while caput became chef, borrowed twice by English as “chief” and “chef.”  In English cheptel became “chattel,” as in “chattel slavery” and in the plural in “goods and chattels.”  The latter phrase replaced “goods and cattels” in the 17th century.  But Norman French cattel lives on in “cattle,” which narrowed its meaning to “livestock,” and now only to “bovine livestock.”  A text in 1495 warned against “love of worldly catall”; it was not warning against love of worldly cows.

“Cattle” is a mass noun now, as opposed to a count noun, for you cannot say “cattles” or “a cattle” as you can say “cows” or “a cow.”  If you want to count them you need a counter word, and the one we use is “head”: “He sold fifteen heads of cattle at the fair.”  Oddly enough we often use the singular form (“A thousand head of cattle were slaughtered every day”) as if “head” itself were becoming a mass noun.  Either way, in counting cattle we return to the meaning of caput.  We also count people that way sometimes, as in the Latin phrase per capita.

From many other interesting terms I will close by singling out a word with a root that generated a great number of seemingly unrelated words: “market.”  It comes from Latin merx, meaning “merchandise,” from a root *merc- of unknown origin; it seems not to go back to Proto-Indo-European, so perhaps it came from Etruscan, with whom the Romans, of course, had close commercial and political relations.  From merx comes mercari “to trade” and then marcari and its participle marcato, whence English “market” as well as German Markt, Italian mercato, Spanish mercado,and French marché.  Another participle of mercari, passing through French, gave us “merchant,” “merchandise” (or “merch” today), and “mercantile.”  The Latin noun with a prefix, commercium, gave us “commerce.”

From merx came merces with the senses “reward, pay, price,” and that led to mercenarius, a “soldier for hire” or “mercenary.”  An “amercement” was a fine imposed at the discretion of a lord; the one so “amerced” was at the lord’s mercy.

Latin merces, which came to mean “unearned reward,” and then “compassion,” gave rise to Old French merci “compassion, forbearance” and to English “mercy”; in French merci now means “thank you.”  Latin merces also yields Spanish merced “mercy,” plural mercedes, used in the liturgical phrase Maria de Mercedes, “Mary of Mercies”; Mercedes alone became a common Spanish female name, best known in English, of course, as the name of an automobile introduced by Daimler in 1901, now known as the Mercedes-Benz.  Finally, the root of Latin merx seems to underlie the name of the god Mercury (Latin Mercurius), who was among other things the god of travelers and traders—and thieves.

I am happy to hear from readers with questions or comments:

Michael Ferber moved to New Hampshire in 1987 to join the English Department at
UNH, from which he is now retired. Before that he earned his BA in Ancient Greek at
Swarthmore College and his doctorate in English at Harvard, taught at Yale, and served on the
staff of the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy in Washington, DC. In 1968 he stood trial in
Federal Court in Boston for conspiracy to violate the draft law, with the pediatrician Benjamin
Spock and three other men. He has published many books and articles on literature, and has a
deep interest in linguistics. He is married to Susan Arnold; they have a daughter in San

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