We can “retaliate,” but can we “taliate”?

Yesterday, Trump signed off on his new steel and aluminum tariffs, carving out exemptions for Canada and Mexico. But other trading partners, especially in Europe, are still threatening retaliation, a trade-warring word—and focus of today’s etymology.

The Code of Hammurabi, the original retaliation (Wikimedia Commons)

The legal talons of talio

English first exacts retaliation in the 16th century, when it variously referred to a “requital” or “repayment.”

Today, such reprisals are always vengeful, returning an injury or insult, like for like. But the very earliest instances of retaliation in the mid-1500s were positive, naming the repayment of a service, favor, or kindness. This may be due to confusion with retail.

The verb retaliate appears in the record by the early 1600s.

But there’s no benign retaliation in retaliation’s root: the Latin retaliare, essentially meaning “to retaliate” in the modern English sense of the word. The verb, apparently, features re-, a reciprocal “back” that doubles down on its base, talio, a legal term for “punishment similar and equal to the injury sustained”—or, an eye for eye, as ancient Hebrew law formulated this principle of retaliatory justice found yet earlier in Babylonian codes.

The Romans called it lex talionis, or “law of retaliation.” English borrowed the term as talion in the early 1400s.

The deeper origins of Latin’s talio aren’t exactly clear, but the word seems to be a form of talis, “such, “such like,” “of such kind.” English, as far as the record shows, never had a taliate, but if it did, it would mean, well, “retaliate.” The prefix re- in retaliate seems to simply intensify the sense.

Other etymologists have proposed other roots, though, with Eric Partridge suggesting Celtic cognates meaning “pay” (e.g., Old Irish, tale) and Walter Skeat pointing to the Sanskrit (tul, “lift,” and tula, “balance, equality”). 

Tallying a taliate

English does have an obscure verb talliate, “to tax” or, more properly, “to impose tallage.” Tallage was a kind of tax levied in feudal Norman times, a word whose ultimate Latin root, taliare, provides detail, entail, tailor, tally, and, yes, retail.

Taliare means “to cut,” extended to “allot,” from talea, a “staff,” “rod,” or “stick,” like a twig cut off from a larger branch. If English did have a taliate, we might expect it to mean “to cut (off).”

While we may have no taliate, the similar-looking talliate, if etymologically unrelated, does obtain, as threats of retaliation for Trump’s tariffs promise to talliate US exports abroad. 

m ∫ r ∫

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3 thoughts on “We can “retaliate,” but can we “taliate”?

  1. Friday 2019 August 16 1648h UTC-8h
    Yupsville ”… und ferrrry ferrrry in terrr restting” [from the Laugh-In; may be a waybackwhenbefore Rowan and Martin … ]
    For mini reasons ‘taliate’ occured to me, so your: https://mashedradish.com/2018/03/09/we-can-retaliate-but-can-we-taliate/
    The “definition” is partially less than adequate methinks. Youthinks aboutly about it: A does something to B, so B responds to A. B obviously re-taliates. Yes? So what had A done? By surely every defining definition he ain’t not re-tatliated had he? No he had notly not. The very first A action was merely to ‘taiiate’ so that was then and only then ‘retaliated’. You SWIM?

    And then again — no I have not searched, let alone yet researched this but — for example “treat”. So we have a retreat, or do we re-treat the whatever delightful event? as a grammar acticle re-action for much re-distinction? And then about pretreat, protreat, contreat. A longish time favourite is the all the cons and the pros, as in The Constitution … and its social mirror.
    I do think we should be tolled, very much as the Sexton told the bell.
    (ツ)(ツ) HTH


    1. Yups again All about taliation and its re-
      It was more of a “private” thought for you, rather than for the general list. It is up to you but I would somewhat rather prefer it remains “private”.
      Many thankyous


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