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The History Of Business Words. Part 2

There was a successful Scandinavian invasion of England in the ninth century, but it did not leave a deep impression upon the language. The Norse word by, meaning a town, remains in such local names as Whitby, and we have certain Norse nautical terms, like crew, harbor, hawser.

§ 53. It was the Norman conquest, 1066, which wrought the greatest change in English. This brought the French language into the English court, whence it gradually spread among the people. Thus thousands of words originally of Latin origin became domesticated in England. The structure of the language remained Saxon, the vocabulary became half French. But in most cases the new words did not displace the older. They lived alongside of them and acquired slightly different meanings. The Saxon calf was kept for the live animal, the French veal named it in the form of food. The invasion thus hastened the specialization of meaning. Specialization of meaning is always going on, as one can see in such a word as mare. This once meant any horse, male or female, but has now come to name the female only. But the Conquest by one stroke furnished countless synonyms which might thus be differentiated and specialized. In our day we are rarely conscious of any foreign flavor in those adopted French terms. "Travel" does not seem a foreign word, though it was originally the French for "work." A commercial traveler to-day may feel that travel does mean work, but it does not occur to him that our home-loving ancestors discovered that before him, and ironically set aside the French term to perpetuate the fact.

Our borrowings from the Latin through the French are enormous, but they are hardly greater than our direct borrowings from the Latin. All through the Middle Ages the monks were taking over Latin words into English; so were the lawyers and statesmen, for Latin was the language of law and diplomacy; and with the Revival of Learning in the fifteenth century the scholars continued the process. To this day we continue to receive new words from this source, and also from Greek. Greek is used in the formation of new scientific terms, and in 1909 we find the eminent electrical engineer, Steinmetz, recommending young engineers to study Greek if for no other reason than this.

The Revival of Learning merged in what we call the Renaissance, a general quickening of European interest in everything human. The Renaissance gave us Italian painting and sculpture; it gave us Shakspere; and it gave us the great imaginative explorers, like Ralegh and Drake. The merchants followed the explorers, and laid the foundations of England's greatness as a foreign trader. Her ships went everywhere, and brought back not merely foreign goods but foreign names for them. The mention of Sir Walter Ralegh recalls the word tobacco, which he introduced from America. From China the traders brought such woras as tea and silk; from India, sugar and calico; from Persia, orange, lemon, awning, shawl; from Arabia, alcohol, alkali, coffee, cotton, magazine, nabob, sofa, syrup; from Malayan ports, sago, rattan, gong; from Mexico, chocolate and tomato; from South America, alpaca and tapioca; from the West Indies, potato, canoe, etc. Such words have become completely domesticated, and we trouble ourselves little about their origin.

§ 54. Let us draw up a list of fifty or sixty common business words and note their original meaning as compared with their present signification.


A summary or epitome, as of a book or of a statement. Latin abstractus, from abstrahere, to draw from. An abstract draws from the larger whole the essential facts.


To give public notice of. French avertir, from Latin advertere, to turn to. Here the thought is that of turning public attention to the thing advertised.


This word is transferred bodily from the Latin. It means "a white thing," and in ancient Rome signified a white tablet on which edicts and lists were posted.


This word is also transferred bodily from the Latin, and means "otherwise." Smith, alias Brown=Smith, otherwise Brown.


A public sale of property to the highest bidder, where successive increased bids are usually made. It is from Latin augere, to increase; a sale by successive increase of price.


A trader who becomes unable to pay his debts. This is Italian. Bankruptcy was banca rotta, or the condition of being with one's money-bench broken. At Florence, it is said, the bench (or bank) of a bankrupt was broken officially. When in slang it is said that "the bank is busted" we have a literal vulgar translation of bankruptcy.


An account of goods sold. This is the commonest meaning, though in bill of exchange, bill of entry, etc., we have many other meanings. This is from Late Latin billa, from Latin bulla, which meant anything rounded. Bills were originally rolled up. Compare the word "billet," which may mean a piece of round wood or a little note. Compare also the phrase "Papal bull," a document written by the Pope and sealed with a bulla, or round seal.


Payment of money exacted by intimidation. Mail is an old word for rent or tribute. Our ancestors expressed their opinion of forced tribute by calling it black.

Bona fide

This is a Latin adverbial phrase and means "in good faith." Thus we may say, "He acted bona fide." Also we use the phrase as an adjective. A bona fide holder of negotiable paper is one who before maturity of the paper acquired his title in the ordinary course of business without notice of any defect in the title.


Something given in addition to what is strictly due. It is pure Latin, and means "a good thing"; or rather it is impure Latin, for the strictly correct form would be bonum. Slang, you see, may lurk even in Latin.


To combine against, to withhold business intercourse from. This word (in 1910) is only thirty years old. It is from Captain Boycott, a land agent of Mayo, Ireland, who was boycotted by the Irish in 1880.

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