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Where does the word bankrupt come from?

The other day I was paging through my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable when the book happened to open at the word bankrupt. For no particular reason I read what was written.

I already knew that bankrupt, like so many English words, had a Latin root, or at least part of it had a Latin root – ruptus, the past participle of rumpere, to break. The other part, banca, is an Old Italian word meaning ‘bench’, and naturally became the modern bank. Old Norse and Old English had similar words. But what I didn’t know was that the modern English word came from the Old Italian bancarotta.

If you enjoy delving into the etymology of words you will find this quite interesting, but what I read in Brewer’s Dictionary about how the word came about was more interesting still.

Bancarotta literally means ‘broken bench’. The word derives from the centuries-old Italian custom whereby an insolvent moneylender or merchant suffered the ignominy of having his table or bench broken up by the other merchants. This symbolized that he was no longer welcome to carry on trading in the market place. Simple but effective.

So there we have it. The word bankrupt has an Old Italian root but let’s hope that you never suffer the consequences of this word!


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Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor and businessman.

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John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

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