Tuesday, February 26, 2013


While I get my blogging act together, it occurred to me that it is a great moment to give a little shout out for Vittana, an organization that microfunds education. It's fairly small scale, but right now they have a matching grant going and your twenty-five dollar loan will be tripled until 11:59 March 1st. You can check out Vittana.org to learn more, and here is the Tedx talk from Brussels that gives a sense of the philosophy behind it.


Back to our regularly scheduled programming soon...

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Okay, okay--I know what this really means is that I haven't been paying attention. There is much talk of sequester in the current budget fight. Although I am familiar with the word through the idea of jury sequester, I don't really know what this means when it comes to the senate. When a jury is sequestered, doesn't mean that they are kind of locked away from the world until they come to some kind of conclusion? As much as I can see President Obama wanting to lock up the Congress until it can work out some reasonable conclusions, I don't think this is actually within his authority.


Well, not surprisingly, we are talking about two entirely different things, linked by a shared etymological history.

A jury sequester comes under the part of the definition that means to cause to withdraw or be isolated--to separate or segregate. The government sequestration comes from a legal term meaning to take property into custody by an agent of the court for safekeeping until the legal rights to it have been established. So in one case, people are the focus, in the other, property or assets.

There's a nice short description of government sequestration and how it came to be here. But basically the word has been borrowed from the law to describe a process by which the U.S. Treasury holds back or 'sequesters' an amount of money that Congress has designated be paid out to various agencies and programs but which lies above and beyond the annual budget it has actually approved. On one level it may sound fair, as everyone has to endure their fair share of the spending cuts. But in practice, many programs are exempted from the process and more have become exempt as time goes on, so the remaining programs face cuts that grow more and more onerous.

Let's hope our representatives can work something out before the March 1st deadline. (But don't hold your breath.)

Sequester comes by the usual route: Old French sequestrer from the Late Latin sequestrare, which means 'to place in safekeeping'. This I think is where the two concepts of jury sequestration and funding sequestration come together, I think--in this concept of safekeeping. The Latin goes back to the noun sequester, which meant a mediator or trustee of some kind. The Online Etymology Dictionary has it that this person was originally a 'follower', which would link it to other 'sequ-' words, like sequel and sequential, something I was wondering about.

I was curious about the history of jury sequestration. It is apparently much rarer than our collective anxiety would have it. I wasn't able to discover whether this is only an American practice, although more than one source has it that the first sequestered jury in America actually predates its founding--the trials of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Being a fairly typical American student, I think, at least of the non-Massachusetts variety, the Boston Massacre doesn't actually loom large in my sense of American Revolutionary history, but it was one of those catalytic moments, and a good account of it can be read here.

Any scientists who have gotten this far into this post are by now certainly champing at the bit to point out that the story of sequestration doesn't end there. Chemicals can be sequestered too. Let's round this out with a little animation of the process of carbon sequestration, one of the ways those with more know-how than I have are attempting to deal with climate change.


(The photographs are from Wikimedia commons, and I hope make up in historical interest what they lack in precise relevance.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


In the comments of the last post, Peter Rozovsky wondered if, as fin as "end" is a part of the word history of finance, the mort in mortgage might also represent a kind of end, though if so it would be a more fatal one. I am intrigued with that question, and may even learn something about mortgages (though hopefully not too much) in the process.


Well, let's not cut to the chase too quickly. It occurs to me that someone might drop by here hoping for a clue about what a mortgage actually is, so let me attempt to give a clear, simple definition.

I suppose to put it most simply, a mortgage is when you buy a home--or other property--and use that property as collateral for a loan which gives you the necessary funds up front. I was trying to discover if there were other kinds of things that you would mortgage, and apparently there is such a thing as a boat mortgage, and an RV  mortgage, but not a car mortgage. A 'car mortgage' is covered under the term 'secured transaction', with the car acting as collateral in the same way a house would. Interestingly, in England the same sort of thing is called a chattel mortgage, chattel in this case meaning simply movable property. Seems like an RV would fall under this definition, but never mind.

Sir Edward Coke

 As Peter suspected, the 'mort' in mortgage does refer to death. A mortgage is more literally a 'dead pledge'. The idea, as I've now read it in various places is that Sir Edward Coke, reputedly the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, thought the term came about because the payment of the debt was so much in doubt. If the borrower fails to pay the debt, he must lose the property and so it is dead to him forever. And if he does pay, then the debt is dead. Well, I defer to the greater mind here, but this seems to be the nature of all loans with collateral, so I'm not sure this entirely explains it.

The word came to England from France as morage, and the 't' was added back in under influence from Latin, which is the kind of shift I find interesting. Grammarphobia has a fairly extensive article on all this and they maintain that the word was not originally used in English in a legal sense, but in a more general way of seeking a benefit at the risk of loss. This would have been in the 1300s. The legal sense doesn't come into it until the late 14th century, or even the 15th, depending on where you're reading.

The 'gage' ending of the word is also interesting. Although the word comes to English from French, the French had apparently borrowed gage from the Germanic languages. There is a prehistoric reconstruction of a word wadja which apparently gives us not just gage, but also 'wage' and 'wed'. All have to do with types of pledges.

The French did not keep the word morage, however, but replaced it with hypothèque--I have no idea why. Perhaps it came to sound too British. Some interesting facts about the French came up in this search. Modern French also has the cognate gages, but this refers to the wages of a domestic worker, not to be confused with the earnings of a university professor (traitement), a workman (paye, salaire), a soldier (solde), and the more general récompense and prix.

Odd, as, presumably, they're all paid with the same money.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Wall Street in 1850
I know this is an odd word to claim ignorance about. Obviously, we all know something about finance, or at least finances, by necessity. But recently, in hearing some talk about what's going on in financial markets, and trying to think about how this word relates to phrases like personal finance, I started to realize that my associations with "finance" are actually quite vague. In the personal sense, I assume it means something about how you manage the inflow and outflow of money, along with some sort of accounting system. But in the larger sense, I also see the possibility that it has something to do with how we pay for things--how we fund projects when we don't upfront have the means to do it.

Is any of this accurate, and does the word mean more in addition to this?

I'm going to guess that the word comes to us from French, but beyond that, I really have no idea about its roots.


Well, I'm at least on track with my sense of finance in modern day parlance. I didn't quite get to the idea that finance is also an area of study--according to Wikipedia, that of how investors allocate assets over time under conditions of both certainty and uncertainty. The article goes on to say that a key aspect of this is the "time value of money", which states that a unit of currency is worth more today than it will be tomorrow. Hmm. I sense myself traipsing along the edge of deeper research than I am ready or willing to get into here, so let's move on to the etymological aspects.

Fine. Or rather, fin. This is the not so mysterious root that was almost too obvious to think of. It's the old French word for limit or end, going back to the Latin finis. Interestingly, our word "fine", as in, say, fine linen, also comes from this word, but in that case it means another kind of limit--the acme, the peak. The Middle French finance meant the limiting or settling of a debt. As the Online Etymology dictionary has it, "the notion is of ending (by satisfying) something that is due". And there is a relation here between paying 'fines' and an expression of the 1300s,'to make fine'--that is to settle a matter, to make one's peace. The verb "fine", by the way, originally meant to pay a ransom or  a debt, but the inverted meaning of to mean to punish by a fine came later.

"Finance", meaning settlement of debt, is from around 1400, but there were other echoes of the word that migrated from France later.  It took on the above mentioned meaning of ransom in English in the mid fifteenth century. Then it grew to include taxation later in the century. It didn't come to mean the management of money in England till 1770, and the idea of 'to furnish with money' didn't come along till the late 1800s.

But when it comes to furnishing others with money, isn't that always the way?


Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I seem to be slacking a bit in writing up this blog lately. Don't worry, though--the ignorance never runs out around these parts. I have a host of unknown things brewing, but most require, uh, drilling down a bit more than I've had the time for. However, I just used the word "cantankerous" in a comment, and suddenly wondered, where the heck did that word come from? I think we all know what the word means--some of us from actually being it a good deal of the time. Crabby, grumpy, misanthropic--like that. As a sound, it has overtones of cankers and tanks and cancerous, adding to its resonance. But I am actually pretty sure that it has nothing to do with any of these.

I don't even seem to be able to come up with one of my dubious and usually highly inaccurate guesses. So let's proceed.


More good synonyms: bad-tempered, peevish, shrewish, quarrelsome, contentious, argumentative, uncooperative. What a wowser of a word.

Apparently, it is thought to be an old "Wiltshire word", which I've never heard of, but not only do they exist, there is a whole glossary of them, obligingly written up by one John Yonge Akerman in Kent, in 1842. You can read it or download it for free. I think the preface is worth reading just in itself, especially the author's realization that words he had always thought of as just vulgar jargon were actually a remnant of the language of Bede, Alfred and Aelfric.

'Cantankerous' doesn't yield itself to analysis all that easily. It is most likely an alteration of the Middle English word contakour, which means 'troublemaker' (yeah, I've been called that too), with contec being the old Anglo-French for conflict or strife. But it has been influenced by other words, maybe a fair number of other words, as I've seen cant, rancorous, raucous, and cankerous suggested. It's interesting that canker is also listed in that Wiltshire word dictionary. So at least one of my guesses above was right, and since cancerous and cankerous turn out to be quite closely related, maybe I have a better than usual average here.

You just never know what you're going to find when you research words on the web. Knowing full well that I will probably now permanently lose all male readers of this blog, this etymologist is just too astounding to pass up. Not only cantankerous but porcupine are explained. If only she'd said hedgehog, it might have boosted my ratings a bit before this blog totally expired through lost readership.