May 30, 2024
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May 30, 2024
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Sharing Some Interesting English Word Origins

I have decided to give you all a break from the difficult task of reading my transliterations of Hebrew words. I will do something easier this week and focus on some English word origins.

What really happened is that a scholarly couple that I know decided to do some housecleaning and discarded a book called “Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories,” by Wilfred Funk (1950). I have now benefited from their housecleaning. This book is priceless (and a used copy sells for only $1.43 on Amazon!). It has over 1,000 English word etymologies, organized by subject matter. I am just going to discuss one chapter, words related to business. Here are some of the insights in this chapter:

Affiliate: This word comes from a word that means “to adopt as a son.” Filius is “son” in Latin. In effect, the larger organization has adopted the smaller organization as its son.

Affluent: This word means that riches “flow” to you. When your style of writing is “fluent,” it flows along smoothly. If you have “influence,” power “flows in” to everyone around you.

Amortize: This word is related to the Latin mors, meaning “death.” When you are amortizing something, you are gradually killing the debt. When you are mortified, you are so embarrassed that you wish you would die.

Auction: The word for auction is from the Latin augeo or auctus, which mean “to increase.” The purpose of an auction is to increase the price. (And we are all augmenting our etymological knowledge by reading this column!)

Bank: The earliest money-changers conducted their business sitting on a bench. This eventually led to the word “bank.” And the word “bankrupt” has its origin in their bench being broken-ruptured!

Calculate: This word derives from the Latin calculi, which means “little stones.” Two thousand years ago, the Roman merchant would figure out his profit by using little stones as his counters.

Cancel: The word for “lattice” in Latin is cancelli. When a postal clerk cancels a stamp, he makes a lattice of ink marks across it. Also, the word “chancellor” is derived from an ancient official of the law courts who stood by a lattice.

Chauffeur: This is a French word that means “to stoke a fire.” This term arose for the driver because, at the beginning of the 20th century, the auto was a steam-driven vehicle.

Coin: This word originally meant “wedge” (just as the “cun” in “cuneiform” means wedge-shaped writing). The word “coin” was the name given to the device that made pieces of money, since the device looked like a wedge. Then the name “coin” was applied to the stamped impress on the money, and finally it was applied to the money itself.

Farm: This word was originally the rent or tax from property. It comes from the Latin firma: fixed (like “firm”). It meant the fixed payment of rent. It was not until the 16th century that a farm became a tract of land and it was at first restricted to a tract of land held on lease.

Finance: When a person pays a fine, it means that a dispute has come to an end. Originally, finance meant both “payment” and “ending.” It was not until the 18th century that finance came to mean “the management of money.”

Negotiate: This term comes from the Latin: neg (not) + and otium (ease). In negotiations, a party is not at ease until the deal is concluded and all papers signed. (As an attorney, I know the feeling!)

Nepotism: The origin of this word is that the early popes, who of course had no children of their own, would confer favors and positions on their nephews. The Latin nepos and nepotis meant “nephew.”

Of course, I cannot complete a column without discussing a Hebrew root. So here is one of my favorites: Sh-C-M (shin, caf, mem). We all know this root because of the frequent use of va-yashkem …ba-boker in the Tanach. The meaning is to get up in the early morning. (This, of course, is the root underlying the term “hashkama” minyan.) But what underlies the word va-yashkem? What does Sh-C-M really mean? The interesting answer is that these letters signify a body part: either the shoulder or the back. See Gen. 21:14 (sam al shichma) and many other places in Tanach. What is the connection between the shoulder/back and getting up in the early morning? The answer is that originally va-yashkem meant to load something onto your shoulder or back (or onto the shoulder/back of your animal). This was an activity usually done in the early morning, before starting the day’s journey. But eventually the word developed into the more general meaning of “to get up early in the morning,” even when no loading was involved!

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015).


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at

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