Tuesday, December 11, 2007

High Finance


An ancient proverb in many languages warns against selling a bear skin before you have caught the bear. Thus, for centuries, in English financial jargon stock sold "short" - that is, stock one did not own but sold anyway, hoping to repurchase it cheaper - was known as a "bear skin." The seller was described as a "bear-skin jobber," or "bear": one who stands to profit from a decline in the quotation for a stock; a pessimist.

His opponent, the optimist, has been designated a "bull" at least since the early 18th century.


From Latin caput, a "head" of cattle. Cattle are one of the oldest forms of wealth: they are movable; grow; bear interest (milk); and provide capital gains (calves). In many cultures a bride-price or damages at law are set in cattle.

Not surprisingly, a number of our financial words derive from this source. Pecuniary and peculation come from Latin pecus, "herd," and chattel is cognate with cattle.

The Wall Street expression "watered stock" describes cattle who, given salt shortly before reaching a convenient stream, imbibe grossly, increase their weight, and thus fetch an inflated price.


The original sense of company survives in our expression, "We're having company for dinner"; that is persons with whom one "breaks bread": Latin com, "together," and panis, "bread."

The business title "& Co." adds to company an ampersand: &, which is the last surviving symbol from the oldest known system of shorthand, used in the Roman courts to abbreviate et, "and." It is called ampersand because centuries ago school recitations of letters began "A per se A" and ended "& per se And."


The Romans used to demand bundles of ten (decuria) furs or hides from conquered German tribes as tribute. Over time, the Germans transformed decuria into decura and later decher.

The word reached England and Holland in the Middle Ages as dyker. The colonists brought it to America as dicker and used it when bartering for furs with the Indians.

From that meaning it evolved into its present send of "haggle."


In business terminology you garnish or garnishee the salary of someone who owes you money by making his employer torn over part of it to you until the debt is extinguished.

In cooking, to garnish means to "embellish," as by adding a sprig of parseley.

The two words come from the same source, Old French garnir, to "prepare", "embellish," or "warn." A fortified town was once called garnished, or "prepared." When a warning was issued about the creditworthiness of a person encumbered by debt, he was also said to be garnished.


The Romans of the 3rd century B.C., like other people of antiquity, attached their mint to a temple, that of Juno Moneta, the "admonisher," from monere, "warn." In time, the coins and the mint itself also became known as moneta, which is still the Italian word. This gave Spanish moneda and French monnaie, which then gave English money, and Old English mynet, "coins," whence English mint.

Dollar comes from Joachimsthal, "Joachim's Valley" (thal/sthal coming from the original Sanskrit that means flat land) in Bohemia, where in the early 16th century the first "thaller" was minted.


Salt is indispensable to human life. Salt is procured artificially, through mining it or boiling or evaporating seawater. As human settlement spread out from places where salt could be made, more and more it became an object of commerce. All the early caravan tracks across the desert were salt routes, as was the oldest road in Europe, Italy's Via Salaria.

The salarium was an allowance given to Roman soldiers to buy salt. The word reaches us as salary.


Instead of issuing written receipts in financial transactions, from Norman times on the Royal Exchequer cut notches into "tally sticks" (from Latin talea, "stick") to indicate amounts of money involved. The stick, usually about a foot long, but sometimes over six feet, was then split in two. The Exchequer retained one half and gave the other to the second party in the deal. The officials who kept the sticks were called telliers, now tellers.

In 1834 the authorities resolved to get rid of this hopelessly cumbersome system. The centuries' accumulation of sticks was burned in the furnace of the House of Lords. The excessive charge of fuel set the building afire. Both Houses of Parliament burned to the ground.



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