The etymological routes of “trade”

At the G7 summit in Canada this week, Donald Trump’s recent tariffs are sparking unprecedented trade disputes with some of the US’s closest allies.

We considered the origins of tariff not long back on the blog (and embargo well before it). But how about the word trade itself?

It takes a path into English you might not have guessed.

Don’t trade on me? (Pixabay)

Well-trodden “ways”

With Latin providing so much of English vocabulary, we might suppose trade is related to tradition, from the Latin tradere, “to hand over,” a sense that feels at home in commerce.

But trade is of Germanic stock. Evidenced in English in the 15th century, trade was handed over from the Dutch or Middle Low German trade (track, path). For the loanword, several etymologists credit the Hanse merchants, who coursed the Baltic and North Sea in the Middle Ages, trading wares—and words. (We did English give them in return?!)

The Dutch/Middle Low German trade comes from a Germanic base (*tred-) that yields English’s own tread. Historical linguistics further propose a Proto-Indo-European root, *der- (run, walk, step), variously generating trap, tramp, and, via Greek, the –drome in words like hippodrome or palindrome.

In the 1450s, trade signified a “track” or “trail” left by a person or animal in English. In the 1480s, it was also denoting the “course” of ship, which looks like a direct path to commercial trade. But this trade took an alternative route.

Of wares and wiles

The Dutch etymon of trade could also mean “manner of acting.” By 1485, the record shows trade for “manner of living” in English, becoming “occupation, profession, earning a living” by the early 1500s (e.g., trade jobs, the legal trade). Buying and selling goods, too, is such a trade, and it seems that by the 1540s, trade lent itself to the larger international enterprise we call trade. The verb form is found in the record shortly thereafter.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds trade war, much in the headlines over Trump’s tariffs,  as a “war fought over trade” in 1718 and its modern sense (damaging another country by enacting tariffs, etc.) by 1811.

Perhaps etymology is instructive to our current events. Are Trump’s tactics really about trade in the economic sense? Or are they more etymological—a manner of acting, as it were?

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85 thoughts on “The etymological routes of “trade”

  1. Very interesting. Modern Dutch still has words like ‘optreden’ for a performance, appearance or way of behaving, but the modern word for trade is ‘handel’ as in ‘deal’, the buying and selling of goods, or even, again, a way of behaving. Fascinating how words are passed from one language to another (handed on). Thank you!


    1. And thank you! Yes, it is quite fascinating to see the original roots of ‘trade’ continue on in a Dutch word like ‘optreden’. I take it the Dutch ‘handel’ is a close cousin to the English ‘handle’.


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