Last week, President Obama announced that he is normalizing relations with Cuba. This means we will be giving one word quite a bit of attention in the days ahead: embargo. Policy-wise, I’ll leave that matter to the experts, but we can give it some etymological attention here.

"Embargo." Doodle by me.
“Embargo.” Doodle by me.


The United States’ trade embargo with Cuba has been in place since 1960. This may be quite a long time by modern standards, but the word embargo has been in place in the English language for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests it in 1602 in a passage referring to an “Imbargo with Spaine.” 

It’s not surprising that Spain comes up in the early days of embargo, for it’s a word of Spanish origin. The Spanish Empire, you may recall, dominated the 16th century in many ways. Their extensive holdings included possessions in the Netherlands, which you may not always recall, if you’re like me. In the 1550s, Catholic Spain felt threatened by English Protestantism, to put it simplistically, and so barred English cloth imports to the Netherlands. England retaliated by barring Dutch imports. This conflict, of course, escalated over the ensuing decades, coming to a head most famously in the Spanish Armada. (Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries, 2007)

Various ships and trade may have been embargoed during this historical stretch, but embargo‘s passage into English certainly was not.

This Spanish embargo, generally meaning a “prohibition,” is formed from the verb embargar, “to restrain,” “seize,” or “impede.” This verb, etymologists propose, comes from a Late Latin *imbarricāre, which breaks down to “a putting of a bar in the way,” according to Walter Skeat. If we take the Latin apart further, we end up with in– (“in”) and *barra.  We don’t know where this *barra comes from, in spite of efforts to link it to a Celtic root referring to the “bushy tops” of trees.

No Bars Barred 

We do believe, however, that *barra, referred to–wait for it–a “bar.” If we look to English, lots of things can bar one’s way, so what was this Latin “bar” like?

Perhaps it was like a barrier, a derivative which English gets from the French. Barriers come in all shapes in sizes, such as those bars–or partitions–used in courts of law to variously set off judges, legal practitioners of different standing, and trial participants from the public. The phrase called to the bar and barrister are so derived, though these two in particular refer to practices at the Inns of Court at London.

This concept of a partition is also behind the bar you go to be served up a drink, perhaps from a barrel, which some suggest could be related to bar on the basis of cask construction. Barrel may also be behind barricade; the OED cites “casks filled with earth, paving stones, etc.” used in Parisian streets during 16th-century riots. Bars are rod-like, too, such as those put baddies who stole bars of gold behind bars, where, the cliché goes, you don’t want to drop a bar of soap.

Sports looked to bars as well, from raise the bar, which I believe refers to literally elevating the challenge in a high-jump, to the no holds barred said of certain wrestling matches.


Latin’s *imbarricāre may have also inspired the word embarrass. Passing into English through the French, the word may be from the Italian imbarazzare or Spanish embarazar, to put someone within “bars,” as Ernest Weekley see its. The OED, however, proposes the Spanish owes itself to the Portuguese baraço, a “cord,” “apparently originally with reference to animals being restrained by a cord.”

Whether leashed or barred, a person is thusly impeded. Its principal early meanings in English and French, though, point to causing someone confusion and perplexity. Over time, such confusion and perplexity were transferred to a sense of putting someone in an awkward or uncomfortable situation. By the mid-1800s, we see it referring to the feelings of humiliation and foolishness we associate with the word to today.

The French verb from which English more immediately picked up this embarrass–embarrasser–was “probably first used in the Spanish Netherlands,” pointing us back again to that Spanish Empire. Yet again, the impact of the Spanish Empire–from the word embargo to the embargoed island of Cuba, officially freed from Spain in 1902–is felt far and wide, indeed.

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