The Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs face off in Game 6 of the World Series tonight. As I grew up in Ohio, and as my family hails from Cleveland, I’m rooting for the Indians to bring in their first championship since 1948. Speaking of tribe (and putting aside the team’s racially controversial mascot), where does the word tribe come from?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests tribe in 1327, specifically referring to the 12 tribes of Israel. This tribe, passing into English from French, is from Latin’s tribus, “tribe,” based on Greek’s use of ϕῡλή (phyle) for the biblical tribes descended from Jacob. The Greek phyle, itself meaning “tribe” or “clan,” survives in phylum and phylogenetic, which we may recall from biology class. A tribe was more generally referring to a “race” or national “division” of people by the 1600s, and any sort of “group” by the 1700s.
Now, the earliest use of Latin’s tribus, best we know, named the three, early peoples of Rome, which some scholars consider to be the Latin, Sabine, and Etruscan tribes. The deeper roots of the word are unclear. Many etymologists have suggested tribus joins tri-, from the Latin for “three,” and the ancient root for “to be,” *bheue-. This Indo-European base also yields English’s be and could convey a sense of “growing,” “becoming,” or “appearing,” which might help explain its application to one of those three, founding Roman families. Derivative terms include tribune and tribunal, which we can trace back to tribunus, literally the “head of a tribe” but politically a representative of the plebeian interests in Roman government.
Whoever wins this year, both Cleveland and Chicago fans are no doubt ecstatic that their tribe has – at long last – had representation in baseball’s highest game.