Common word, uncommon power: behind “ban”

Donald Trump is once again making headlines – and turning heads. As his campaign issued in a news release this week:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

In their coverage of it, many in the press and on social media are referring to Trump’s provocative proclamation as a “ban” on Muslims.

This little word ban seems simple enough, but, like so much of language (and politics), the reality is, it’s much more complicated.


The word ban definitely had free entry into the English language, so to speak. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records ban in Old English, which had the verb bannan. This verb meant “to summon by proclamation,” especially “to arms,” as the OED explains. In the late 1200s, ban shifted to “curse,” conveying its modern and more general sense of “prohibit” by the 1800s. In the late 1950s and 1960s, nuclear disarmament campaigners were often called ban-the-bomb campaigners, which movement created the peace symbol, as I recently discussed.

English also has the noun ban. Evidenced by the late 1200s and traveling into English from the French, this ban originally named a “public proclamation,” also especially to arms. Among its many meanings, the French ban, from the late Latin bannum, signified a “banishment,” which is indeed an etymologically related word. Showing another form of the noun, a marriage banns preserves the word’s proclamatory origins.

Shaping each other over the course of their development, both ban’s were ultimately admitted into French,  Latin, and English from a Germanic source. Historical linguists reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *bannan, “to proclaim (under penalty or with a threat).” We can understand then, its early military senses; think proscription. At the core of this *bannan might be a more basic sense of “to announce publicly.”  

Now, Old Norse, a Germanic language, also presents a cognate: banna,  “to curse.” Probably borrowed in some early dialects thanks to the Viking conquests of England, etymologists suppose this banna pushed ban towards the sense of “prohibition” the word denotes today.

Indo-Europeanists hypothesize a deeper root in the Proto-Indo-European *bha-, “to speak,” source of a great many Latin and Greek derivatives, such as fame and phone, respectively.

Ban, with abandon

Banishment is not the only word related to ban. Abandon comes from a French expression,  à bandon, which means “under one’s control” or “willingly,” with bandon‘s “power” deriving from that earlier sense of “proclamation.” This explains reckless abandon, and we can understand the development of “to surrender” if we imagine another person in control.

Something contraband is literally “against the proclamation,” if we look to its Latin roots. It comes to English via the Italian for “unlawful dealing.” We can thank Italian, too, for bandit, from a word for “outlaw” (literally, someone “banished.”) 

Again, all of these words come from Latin forms, probably as loaned from some Germanic origin.

The banality of…communal kitchens 

During this presidential race, Trump’s incendiary language have now become, well, almost banal – another word related to ban.

As we saw, Old French had ban, which, among its other meanings, referred to a kind of militia, or “assemblage of military vassals,” as the OED glosses it. The men were commanded to serve by “proclamation,” or a ban. Again, think edict.

For its sense development in French, philologist Eric Partridge offers the French adjectival form banal, “of or for obligatory service,” hence “merely obligatory,” hence “commonplace.” It may have unfolded a bit differently, though. This banal also could convey “open to the whole community” (Barnhart), such as “things like ovens or mills that belonged to feudal serfs, or else compulsory military service,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary. Something “communal” can be viewed as “everyday,” and thus “common” or “trite.”

ban, as we’ve seen, is all about language: it originates as a public announcement. But these early proclamations, these early bans, had a lot of power and consequence, as they commanded men to fight. Whether we are sending out a tweet or running a campaign for the office of the presidency of the United States, we might heed the etymological lesson of ban with our many and instantaneous outlets for our pronouncements.  Words have a lot of power. Words have a lot of consequence.

m ∫ r ∫ 


6 thoughts on “Common word, uncommon power: behind “ban”

  1. I always assumed the word “bandito” was from Spanish or even the Spanglish of Spaghetti Western movies rather than originally being from the past participle of the Italian verb “bandire” (to ban, banish). Despite its Latinate veneer, “bandire” came originally from the Germanic sources of Frankish *bannjan ‎(“banish”) and Gothic *bandwjan ‎(“to signal”).


    1. Indeed. I think it does have a Spanish character, as you indicate. You recall if there are particular popular characters in Westerns or similar narratives commonly referred to as “bandits”? And yes, one of my favorite bands of etymology, if you will, are those Latin borrowings from Germanic tribes. It makes me imagine some kind of tribal custom of conscription that Italic tribes observed and adapted (in language at least).


      1. Westerns were never one of my favourite movie genres so I can’t specifically name any characters referred to as “bandits” off the top of my head? In fact, in its form of “bandito” I might have even heard it as part of the Spanglish from cartoons as a child in the 70s – wasn’t Speedy Gonzales the fastest mouse in all Mexico called the “Queso Bandito” or something like that? I know there’s a Mexican themed bar in Liverpool called “El Bandito” which was also the stage name of an old UK wrestler so the word does have some sort of mock cultural currency as it’s also found its way into other languages eg. Russian: банди́т (bandít) Polish: bandyta Finnish: bandiitti and Hungarian: bandita to name a few.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s