What is so “rupt” about “bankrupt”?

Toys “R” Us, the world’s largest toy store chain, filed for bankruptcy protections today. Debt and online shopping aren’t great for playtime, it turns out—but etymology certainly is. This post, let’s have a quick look at the origins of bankrupt.

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“Bankrupt”: literally breaking the bank. (Pixabay)

Bankrupt: trading in metaphors

Borrowed into English from French, bankrupt comes from the Italian phrase banca rotta, or banco rotto in the masculine, literally a “broken bench.”

The bench here refers to a market stall where merchants would count and exchange money, and it’s said that, once upon a time, people would break up their stalls if they had become insolvent. The Italian phrase itself, though, may have actually just started out as a figurative expression.

The Italian banco goes back to a Germanic root, with some basic meaning of “table,” that also gives English the word bench and is connected to the geological bank in, say, sandbank. First used as a table for counting and exchanging money, bank was metaphorically extended to the financial institutions we call banks today.

Rotto, meanwhile, goes back to the Latin rumpere, “to break” or “burst.” The Latin verb’s past participial form is ruptus, which we can see in other derivatives like abrupt, corrupt, interrupt, erupt, and rupture. This form also helps explains English spelling of bankrupt, as well as its French intermediary, bancque roupte.

As for when bankrupt entered the language, the Oxford English Dictionary finds a bankrupt (insolvent person) in 1533, to bankrupt in 1552, and bankrupt as an adjective in 1565. Various figurative extensions of bankrupt (e.g., a person bankrupt of honor) are found shortly thereafter. Bankruptcy emerges just a little later in the 1630s—or some nearly 400 years if you’re Toys “R” Us.

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