With House Republicans unveiling sweeping tax cuts in a bill this week, I figured it was a good time to repost this piece on the etymology of tax from 2014. Over three years later, I still find it incredible that tax comes from the same Latin root that gives us task, taste, and taxi.
It’s Tax Day in the United States. In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and witty quotes about taxes. While attributed in this form to Benjamin Franklin, the earliest iteration goes to a Christopher Bullock in his 1716 The Cobler of Preston. (This is not to be confused with Charles Johnson’s rival work of the same year and same name; read Bullock’s preface if you want to jump down a rabbit hole). As Bullock quipped:
‘Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.
Well, are we at all sure about the origin of the word tax?
Tax first imposed itself upon English in the early 1300s, coming from the French verb taxer and, in turn, the Latin taxare. In Latin, taxare mostly functioned on a figurative level, meaning “to censure” and “reproach” someone with a fault as well as “to rate” or “appraise” the value of something. Here, we can already anticipate its modern meanings dealing with finance and fatigue.
However, taxare literally meant “to touch sharply” or “handle.” It’s a form of the verb tangere, “to touch.” Tangent, tangible, tactile, contact, and contagious are all related.
And let’s not forget the tango, perhaps the most sensuous of tangere‘s derivatives.
More specifically, this taxare is a form of tangere known as a frequentative or iterative, an aspect some verbs can take that expresses repeated, intensive, or habitual action. It’s no longer what we call “productive” in English, meaning we’re not really using it to form new words, but a good number of frequentative forms have shown staying power.
Chat a lot? Then you might be chattering. Hear that snap, crackle, and pop of your Rice Krispies? That’s a lot of little cracks. Squirrels climb and clamber, leaks drip and dribble. Wrestlers are engaged in wresting. And your dog is so excited to see you when you get home he piddles on the floor, forming a puddle of piss. All those tweets makes for a lot of twitter.
You can see that the suffixes -le, -er, and/or ablaut (vowel change) were primary mechanisms for the frequentative in English.
So, in tax, how do we go from a touch to a levy? Visit an antiques shop, a clothing store, or, better yet, a guitar seller, and watch buyers inspect and value their wares with fondling fingers. And perhaps the gloss of “touch sharply” gives us a hint of tax as penalty–from appraisals to judgments to being charged with fines.
The original code of tax, if you will permit the overwrought metaphor, is believed to be the Proto-Indo-European *tag-, meaning “touch.” (A variant, *tong-, would explain the nasalization we see in Latin’s tangere).
But this *tag– might also have been more aggressive with “grip” and “seize,” which would explain the Greek tassein, which means “seize” but also to “fix,” “arrange,” and “order.” Hence, taxonomy, tactics, and taxidermy:
Here, Hitchcock discusses Norman Bates’ macabre “hobby” (and foreshadowing) in Psycho (courtesy of clipsandfootage.com).
Taskmasters, tastemakers, and taxi drivers
Some curious derivates of Latin’s taxare include: task, taste, and taxi. From the French tasque, task–originally a payment paid to a feudal superior or work exacted from a person, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) observes of its use in the late Middle Ages–may have undergone metathesis. Metathesis, recall, is the switching of sounds, as in the pronunciation of ask as ax, which we know Chaucer did. It’s a very common phenomenon in English–and in language and speech as such. This common root also makes tax and task what we call “doublets.”
Taste originated as “the act of touch” (OED) but referred to what we now think of as the sense of taste by the mid-1300s. Rooted in Latin’s taxare, it was also likely influenced by gustare (taste). Taste-buds, I thought I’d share, were once known as taste-goblets.
A taxi is short for a taxicab, itself short for a taximeter cab. The earliest attestation of taximeter (from the French for, essentially, “tariff meter”) is the German taxamon from around 1875 (OED).
So, after you have filed your taxes (or have extended that task for a later date), have a taste of wine–er, gulp–but be sure to hail a taxi if you need to get home.