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.

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Don’t trade on me? (Pixabay)

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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.

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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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If it weren’t for trade, there’d be no “tariff”

The word tariff goes all the way back to Arabic.

Economists, businesspersons, and politicians of all stripes are pushing back against Donald Trump’s plan to impose stiff, new aluminum and steel tariffs, or “taxes imposed on imported goods,” in an effort to lower the trade deficit. They are concerned the shortsighted policy will increase costs on US consumers and hurt the economies of close trading parts, like Canada and Germany, triggering a trade war.

If it weren’t for trade, however, we’d have a massive deficit in our vocabularyincluding tariff. Let’s have a look at the etymology of this economic word of the moment.

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In the 16th century, a tariff could refer to mathematical tables not unlike those we once had to use to calculate logarithms. (Pixabay)

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Taking “taxes” to the etymological task (repost)

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.

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