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?



  1. This may be the finest of your posts, precisely because you tackle a word about which almost no one would think he or she was ignorant.

    Since you've rooted the word finance in a cultural context, I wonder if synonyms in other languages reflect different concepts.

  2. If the "fin" in "finance" is etymologically related to "fin" (end), it may be interesting to that the "mort" in "mortgage" does, indeed, come from "mort," meaning "dead."

  3. Thanks, Peter. I read somewhere that Anatoly Liberman said how initially, it's the odd words that we're curious about, but ultimately all words are odd. Or something like that. Actually, probably not very much like that at all. But you get the idea.

    Initial inspections shows that all the Latinate languages I checked are cognates of finance. Greek is different, but I don't know enough Greek to puzzle it out.

    The mort in mortgage would indeed be a good one to look into. Though not right now.

  4. I have not read that observation of Anatoly Liberman's, but I did think something similar once when reading Theophrastus' Characters. I can read enough Greek to make out individual words, so when I read that the word Theophrastus' fourth century BC word for "stupidity" was "anesthesia" -- that is, a dullness to sensory impressions--I then turned around and started thinking about what the previously transparent word "stupid" meant

  5. chrimatodótisi, or χρηματοδότηση is the Greek, so perhaps you will have some intuition about what that means to the Greeks.

    As to stupid, stupefy must be related but what the root is, I don't know. Unless it's related all those 'stand' words.

  6. That's Greek to me, though I suppose your average Greek would have some choice words on the subject of finance these days.