bric-a-brac english


In VOCABULARY on December 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Oxford Dictionaries have a very interesting blog about words, obviously, and other language features. In this post they explain the origins of some popular expressions. Here’s the origin of the words bankrupt/bankruptcy:

Does the word ‘bankrupt’ come from a literal breaking of a bank?

Not exactly, although the theory is on the right lines. In the sixteenth century, moneylenders or traders used to conduct their business on benches outdoors. The usual Italian word for such benches was banca—hence today’s ‘bank’. A banca rotta was a ‘broken bench’.
In his dictionary of 1755, Samuel Johnson noted the common legend that when a money-dealer himself became insolvent, his table was duly broken as a sign to others. Whether or not this was true, banca rotta, which morphed into ‘bankrupt’ in English, was definitely used figuratively to mean someone who had gone out of business—and indeed the modern sense of being ‘broke’ comes from that very same origin too.

[words in red type are links to Oxford Dictionary definitions]

The Italian rotta comes from the Latin rupta < rumpere [to break].

From the same root, English got rupture [verb=to break suddenly; noun=the act of breaking (literally & figuratively)] and erupt (=to break out):

  • If the artery ruptures he could die.
  • The rupture with his father was absolute.
  • Violence erupted
  • a volcanic eruption

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