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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Etymology again

‘Few words have received more etymological investigation’,
states the OED breathlessly. Despite this, its
history is still contentious. For a long time it was
believed to originate from the Arabic ’awãr, meaning
damage, but recent research now refutes that theory.
Around 1200 the French used avaries to mean duties
paid on goods in maritime transit (the prior history of
the word is uncertain). The sense of tax had expanded
to the cost of goods lost or damaged at sea by the time
it entered English in the late 15th century. It then
came to denote the apportionment of the cost of lost
goods between the owners concerned. From this sense
of fair apportionment it gradually became used to signify
an arithmetical mean. The word continues in a
maritime insurance sense in phrases such as ‘general
average’ and ‘particular average’.
Oh, for the days when they sold only intoxicating
liquor! The Old French brochier meant to tap or pierce
a keg. This gave the French word brocheor, meaning a
person who sold wine. By the 14th century it had
become brokour in English, meaning any middleman
or commercial agent including romantic matchmakers
and pimps. In The two gentleman of Verona, the
heroine Julia exclaims, on being offered such romantic
mediation, ‘Now, by my modesty, a goodly broker!’
Broker shares a common etymology with the word
broach, from the original piercing sense of the root. At
last the phrase ‘break out the barrel’ begins to make
As you might reasonably expect from pictures of successive
chancellors giving budget speeches, this word
shares its origins with bulge and belly. The Latin bulga,
a small bag, gave the Old French bouge, a leather bag.
This crossed the Channel as bougette, a wallet. The
spelling gradually changed, arriving at budget by the
early 17th century but still signifying wallet. Then in
1733 one satirist referred to the chancellor’s oration in
the following terms:
‘The Budget is opened; and our State Emperick hath
dispensed his packets by his Zany Couriers through all
Parts of the Kingdom’
From that day on, the word’s fate was sealed.
Cheque, check, exchequer, peculiar shirts
Chess players will be heartened to find that these
words owe their form to the game of chess. The Persian
’shãh for King gave the identical Arabic word for
the game of chess. Much later, this had become the
Old French eschec, from which came chek the call
made on making a move that attacks the opponent’s
king (’shãh mat, the King is dead, evolved into our
checkmate). Thus chek had the sense of attack by the
late 14th century, and from this it took the sense of
some adverse event, repulse, or stoppage by the 16th
century. The word check takes its present meaning
from this. Cheque was a variant spelling, referring to
the receipt stubs or counterfoils on bank payment
orders counterfoils which existed in order to ‘check’
forgery and fraud.
The word exchequer derives from the use by state
finance officials of a table covered with cloth divided
into squares, on which they kept track of revenues
this cloth was seen as similar to the chessboard. Devotees
of chequered shirts, wherever you are, take pride
in your etymological heritage your upper-torso-wear
also shares this illustrious ancestry.
A word which was coined for purely ironical purposes
in the early 19th century, to ‘act the pontiff’ in suitably
pompous manner. Pontiff itself has a fascinating origin. Before it came to mean exclusively the pope
(in the 17th century), it denoted any high priest. The
word came from the Latin pontifex, a high priest of
Roman times. This word came from ponte (bridge)
and fex (from facere, to make or do). It is thought that
the principal college of priests in Rome had responsibility
for the upkeep of the Sublicio bridge over the
Tiber, from which bridge sacrificial victims were
lovingly thrown hence giving the ‘bridgemaker’
Victims of fast, decisive management resolutions will
appreciate that it was the French randir to run fast,
to gallop that gives us random. The French word
travelled into English in the 15th century, keeping the
same meaning. From this came the phrase at random
at great speed, without care or consideration. For
instance, Shakespeare uses it in ‘thou hast no eyes to
see, But hatefully at random dost thou hit’ and ‘He
talkes at random: sure the man is mad.’ Thus came
about its use with the sense of ‘haphazard’, and from
the late 19th century it came to be used in the probabilistic
context with which we are now familiar.
The word is best known in an insurance sense to anyone
who has done work involving continental products.
The foreign equivalents of the word the French
tariffe, the Italian tariffa, and so on were used to refer
to the government-imposed pricing structures for
insurance products in the days before the EU Third
Life/Non-Life Directives.
The word has an Arabic origin. From ’arafa, meaning
‘he notified’, came the Arabic ta’r -if , meaning information,
or an inventory of fees to be paid. This progressed
via the medieval Latin tarifa a list of prices,
book of rates or tables to the Italian tariffa. By the
16th century this was most widely used to denote a
list of taxes or duties, but by circa 1700 it was in use in
English as tariff, its meaning having broadened to
encompass any set of prices.
The origin of this word is the Latin testum, a small clay
pot. This travelled into Old French as test, to become
teste in 14th century English, denoting a small vessel
used in alchemy the word occurs in Chaucer’s Canterbury
Tales. By the 16th century, it was being used in
the sense of an instrument used in ascertaining the
purity of silver or gold, a meaning that allowed some
metaphorical play for instance, Shakespeare has
Hamlet say, ‘It is not madness that I have uttered;
bring me to the Test’. The word gradually shifted in
sense, acquiring its current meaning by the 18th century.
The history of the word also explains why testtubes
are known as such, rather than plain old tubes!
Note that other ‘test’ words testify, intestate, testament,
testicle all come from a different root, the
Latin testis meaning witness.
Sterling, pound, quid
Sterling is, appropriately, a word of Old English origin.
The 12th century English word steorra for star became,
with some French influence, sterre. This then gave the
name sterling to the English silver penny of Norman
times, which originally bore a star motif the word
started to appear around 1100. Sterling then came to
denote money in a general sense in the 16th century,
and was used shortly afterwards to distinguish English
money from dastardly foreign lucre.
The pound, in its financial sense, originates very
simply from the worth of one pound of weight of silver
coins. The weight version of the word comes from
the Old English word pund, denoting a measure of
weight. Interestingly, the ‘lb’ to denote a pound of
weight comes from the Latin libra for scales (as in the
constellation and zodiac sign).
Quid came into recorded use in the late 17th century.
The most likely albeit tenuous explanation is
that it was an abbreviation of quid pro quo, a common
16th century term for one thing in exchange for
The word does not trace its history back to Extraterrestrial
Carnivorous Unionists, or even to Ectomorphically
Curvaceous Utensils, as many have long
The French would deny that the ECU owes its name
to anything other than the old French coin the écu,
the silver coin of the Gallic realm in the 14th century.
The word, if not the coin, remained in circulation for
a long time for instance in the 19th century it was
used for a five franc piece. The écu comes from the
Latin scutum, shield because the coin bore three
fleurs-de-lys as a motif, a device common on heraldic
Dollar, buck
On the other side of the ocean, we have the dollar
but this has come, etymologically, from Bohemia! The
silver mining area of St Joachim’s valley in Bohemia
contained the town Joachimstaler. This gave the word
taler, or dahler, for a German silver coin by the early
16th century. This had become dollar by the end of
the 16th century when referring to ‘pieces of eight’
meaning Spanish coins worth eight reales (the basic
Spanish currency unit). These Spanish coins were in
common use in British North American colonies
when ‘our subjects were revolting’. Jefferson suggested
in 1782 that the dollar be adopted to denote American
currency, and that was that. The dollar symbol is
thought to have come from the symbol 8, the dollar
having ‘parity’ with pieces of eight.
These complex 18th century exchange rate mechanisms
were a far cry from life in America’s wild west,
where deerskins were a standard unit of exchange
between American Indians and the frontiersmen
from which derives the buck; thus runs one plausible,
but unsupported, theory.