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 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.