Last week, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, declaring a right to same-sex marriage all across the Union. Court analysts have been going beneath the robes of the justices, especially Justice Kennedy in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, to deepen our understanding of the man and mind behind the opinion. Let’s go beneath the word robe for an etymological ruling.
Robes have long been worn to signify one’s rank, office, or profession, and the word robe has long been used a metonym for those professions. This is true of judges, whose custom of wearing black robes is subject to differing opinions, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor herself notes. For all the justice symbolized by a judge’s robe, the origin of the word is rather criminal, shall we say.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites robe in the early 13th century. English borrowed the word from the Old French robe, which, in turn, borrowed the Germanic *rauba. Yet “borrow” might not be the best verb here. For *rauba, as with the Old French robe, means “booty” or “spoils of war” – literally, “clothes taken from an enemy.” As Walter Skeat explains, this root came to name “a garment because the spoils of the slain consisted chiefly of clothing.”
We talk about thieves taking everything but the shirts off our backs. Not so, apparently, for robes. Fugitives, however, will gladly shed their outerwear, as we saw in my recent post on escape.
This taking, this despoiling? It’s robbery. Old French also fashioned *rauba into a verb, rober, “to plunder,” “to pillage,” “to steal,” or “to rob,” source of English’s very own rob. Evidenced even before robe, rob, and robbery – all of which the OED attests in around 1225 – is robber, cited in a manuscript dated back to around 1175. The word appears alongside reafer (“Robberas & Reafer[as]”), which is a form of reaver, from reave, “to rob” – and related to that very *rauba. Reave is not very common anymore, but it does live on in bereave and bereft, characterizing the loss of a loved one we’ve been robbed of.
Indo-European scholars pick robe, rob, and reave from the pocket of the Proto-Indo-European root, *reup-, “to snatch.” There were was a lot of loot in this *reup-, including the very word loot, as we previously encountered on my post on loot. Other cognates include rip, ruble, rover, tempo rubato (the Italian musical term for “robbed time”) and the many English derivatives of the Latin rumpere, “to burst,” including bankruptcy, which is plaguing the likes of Puerto Rico and Greece, essentially.
If you don’t want to get robbed of your robes, guard them in a wardrobe, which is, etymologically, a “guard-robe.”