Ruble. Doodle by me.
Ruble. Doodle by me.

Some etymologies drive the point home perfectly–and others have a way of bringing it all together.

Such is the case with the word loot, which has surfaced–and I think in an insidiously racialized manner–amid the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Its origin, however, is far, far away from the American Midwest.


Loot derives from the Hindi lut, meaning “spoil,” “booty,” or “plunder,” and was taken into English as a result of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.

The word is first attested in 1788 in a glossary of Indian words–The Indian vocabulary: to which is prefixed the Forms of impeachment. It was designed to aid Englishmen in understanding native words used in the impeachment of a British governor, William Hastings, accused of corruption in his post in India.

It’s attested again in 1839 in the erstwhile British publication Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

The annals of the Pindarry war show how easily a marauding force, held together solely by the hope of spoil, is collected in India. The famous freebooting leader, Ameer Khan (lately dead), on being asked how he contrived to keep together the various tribes and religions found in the ranks of his motley followers, said that he always found the talismanic gathering-word ‘Loot’ (plunder), a sufficient bond of union in any part of India; and in those devastating hordes of cavalry, the Cossacks and Bashkirs would find a similarity not only in habits and pursues, but even in name, the term Cosak being in common use throughout the north of India to indicate a predatory horseman.

Putting aside the rather invidious characterization of indigenous populations, the passage describes one, Amir Khan, a Pathan freebooter in northern India who wielded control over an army of tribal mercenaries. Often commissioned by allies, he would sic his soldiers on enemies, securing their services through the promise of loot–the spoils of war. Khan eventually surrendered to British forces. And, as the author points out, Cossack should indeed evoke the horseback militiamen in southern Russia/Ukraine: They take their name from the Turkish kazak, “free man” or “wanderer.” Kazakhstan is cognate. But we’ll get back to Russia in a moment.


Another Anglo-Indian glossary–this one the famed, 1886 Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursivegives us a little more information on this lut.

According to it, the Hindi lut is taken from its parent language, the Sanskrit lotra, meaning “to rob.” A variant, loptra, is suggested, as well as the word lunt. Lotra, in turn, is from the Sanskrit root lup or rup, “to break.” Other colloquial terms included looty and lootiewallah for “plunderer.”

From here, historical linguistics point us back to the Proto-Indo-European *reup-, “to snatch.” And this root has been much in the news, so to speak.

A volcanic eruption appears imminent in Iceland and clashes are erupting in Africa over Ebola quarantines. Erupt is ultimately from the Latin rumpere (like lup/rup, “break,” “burst,” “split”), traced back to *reup-Interrupt, corrupt, and bankrupt, among others, are also so derived.  

Russian convoys in Ukraine have been disruptive (another example), to say the least. More sanctions were threatened to hurt their rubles. Indeed, ruble is also believed to be from *reup-, from a Slavic root for “hew” or “chop,” referring to the way specific amounts of currency were historically cut off from silver bars.

And many are still feeling bereaved over the death of Robin Williams. Bereave–and its base, reave–are from a Germanic iteration of *reup- for “rob.” Via a French borrowing, rob itself is derived from this as well.

Maybe all this makes you just want to surrender to your bathrobe. But you might want to rip that off, too. Like robrobe is French via the same Germanic root for rob, here referring to “clothes taken as booty.” And rip? Yep, that’s ultimately from *reup-, too.

Ah! What are we to do? Perhaps play with your dog Rover or sate your curiosity and marvel at the astonishing feat of the Mars Rover? Nope. It’s inescapable. Via a Dutch term for “sea-robber” or “pirate,” rover, cognate to reave, is also looted from that same Proto-Indo-European *reup-.

We got a lot of loot out of *reup-.

 m ∫ r ∫