There’s a word tare, meaning “The weight of the wrapping, receptacle, or conveyance containing goods, which is deducted from the gross in order to ascertain the net weight” (OED), that I’ve looked up any number of times but never remember because it’s not part of my mental world. (If you’re curious, it’s via French from Arabic ṭarḥah ‘that which is thrown away,’ from ṭaraḥa ‘to throw (away),’ which is also the root of mattress, from Arabic maṭraḥ ‘place where something is thrown, hence carpet, cushion, bed.’) Today, reading a fascinating 1986 interview (in Russian; found at Avva) with the manager of a fruits-and-vegetables store that throws a great deal of light on the realities of doing business in the late-Soviet period, I hit the word тара [tara], looked it up, found it meant tare, cursed, looked that up, and got the definition above, which I think may finally stick. But looking through the OED entry I found the following phrase:

tare and tret: the two ordinary deductions in calculating the net weight of goods to be sold by retail: see TRET; also, the rule in arithmetic by which these are calculated.

So I saw TRET, and here’s what I found:

An allowance of 4 lb. in 104 lb. (= 1/26) on goods sold by weight after the deduction for tare.

The reason or ground of the allowance was apparently forgotten already in the 17th c., and has been variously given since: see quots.

(“Origin and history obscure.”) Some of the various explanations:

1670 BLOUNT Law Dict. s.v. Tare and Tret, The other [Tret] is a consideration allowed in the weight for wast, in emptying and reselling the Goods.
1678 PHILLIPS (ed. 4), Tret, a certain allowance that is made by Merchants, before a Commodity is garbled from its refuse [1706 ed. Kersey adds] as Dust, Moats, &c., which is always 4 in every 104 Pounds.
1882 BITHELL Counting-ho. Dict., Tret, an allowance made for wear, damage, or deterioration in goods during transit from one place to another.

Another citation mentions cloff, which is “An allowance (now of 2 lbs. in 3 cwt., or 1/168), given with certain commodities, in order that the weight may hold good when they are sold by retail,” but de minimis non curat Languagehat.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    And, to paraphrase S.J. Perelman only slightly, de minimis ain’t what dey used to be.

  2. All the world is God’s own field,
    Fruit unto His praise to yield;
    Wheat and tares together sown,
    Unto joy or sorrow grown;
    First the blade and then the ear,
    Then the full corn shall appear:
    Lord of harvest, grant that we
    Wholesome grain and pure may be.

    “Tares” are apparently weeds growing among the wheat, to be thrown into the fire at harvest time, much like the goats at the the last judgment.

  3. That was a nineteenth-century hymn on American Pilgrim themes. I had assumed it was older than that.

  4. From the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 13, KJV.

  5. That “tare” is a different word “of obscure origin and history” that originally meant “The seed of a vetch.”

  6. The Russian word actually means the packaging itself, and not just its weight.

  7. Right, the packaging was the first definition in my dictionary, but the second was ‘tare.’

  8. Most precision scales have a “Tare” button. You put the container on the scale, push Tare, and then the weight will be deducted from whatever you weigh on that scale until you reset the tare to zero.

  9. C. Callosum says

    You mean TARE doesn’t stand for “take away receptacle error”? Man, I’ve been lied to since seventh grade physics class…

  10. Tare and tret are fairly classic crosswordese, but I’ve never seen cloff.

  11. is ‘tare’ an unusual word in English?
    The Italian equivalent (both in meaning and in derivation) is ‘tara’ and is quite an every-day word.
    I’m fascinated by how the same word can have very different luck (in terms of usage) in different languages.

  12. On the other hand, the tares are thrown out afterward, like packaging. They’re the sinners mixed in with the saints — who can’t be separated from the saints / wheat in life, but only at the Last Judgement. So maybe that’s your obscure derivation. (Has to be as old as the KJV though.)

  13. Ryegrass is another candidate weed. It’s a better candidate than vetch, because vetch is edible and ryegrass isn’t. Like many other fodder plants, vetch is good fodder in moderate doses but can be fatal in large doses — horses and cattle are eating machines and don’t know when to stop.

  14. More specifically, tare is said to be darnel, a specific kind of ryegrass which is hard to distinguish from wheat and sometimes toxic.
    This link also includes Turkish definitions, believe it or not.

  15. Ago, how can it be an everyday word unless it’s an everyday concept? Do Italians do a lot more weighing than Americans? Perhaps so, considering that European recipes seem to measure more things by weight rather than volume.

  16. I could easily see “tare” coming to mean “unusable remnant” in many different contexts. (E.G., when you buy an album with one good song and 11 mediocre ones). I’ve even been tempted to use it myself, except that native English speakers not involved in with shipping and receiving would not understand.

  17. “Tare” *is* an everyday word in certain *industries*.
    It’s commonly part of the boilerplate text on invoices and shipping containers (often in the phrase “tare weight,” meaning “weight without the container).
    If you work in the shipping industry, or in manufacturing, you will see it often. And use it some.
    If you work in the sciences, measuring things, you would use the phrase now and then.
    You might even use that term somewhat frequently if you’re a grocery, or if you sell foodstuffs by weight.
    It’s just that, in our prepackaged world, few people measure things. And “industry jargon” is removed from places like the $6-per-pound salad bar.

  18. John, I’m not sure I’d understand, even though I’m very familiar with the word “tare” from my years in chemistry labs. I don’t see tare equating to “unusable remnant” (as maybe “rind” or “seeds” or “bones” might) because the weighing paper or pallet or whatever is being subtracted out isn’t part of the thing being weighed in the way that even the bad songs are part of the album.

  19. It would be quite a small stretch. It’s the difference between what you get and what you want. The part you throw away. The packaging. The scientific use is different, though similar. All are gross minus net. Even the weeds in the Bible.

  20. marie-lucie says

    In French also, la tare is of common use for ‘container weight’, such as the weight of an empty truck as well as that of a crate, bottle or other container. (Another meaning is “serious, uncorrectable defect”, as in a birth defect or manufacturing defect).
    The French equivalent of English tares is the feminine noun l’ivraie. I don’t recall ever hearing this word applied to an actual plant (and so wondered what it was) but remember it only from the Biblical context séparer le bon grain de l’ivraie ‘to separate the good seed (= “corn”) from the tares’. The word tares then may apply to the “bad” seeds rather than the plant itself, which must be sufficiently similar to wheat or other cereal in appearance that the difference shows only in the seeds, at the time of the harvest.
    According the Petit Robert dictionary, the closest equivalent is ray-grass, which I presume must be the same as English rye-grass. This is not identical to the bad ivraie but a variety of it which provides good fodder.

  21. Darnel is probably the bad ivraie.

  22. marie-lucie says

    John, yes, after consulting the Turkish, etc site, I agree that it is probably that, a plant in the Graminaceae family, rather than a vetch which would be quite easy to notice in a field of wheat, long before it bore seeds.

  23. In various science schools I’ve only heard “tare” used as a verb (e.g. “tare the scale before you weigh that reagent”).

  24. I use tare hundreds of times per day, but then I work in a natural foods store with a bulk section.
    There’s a button on the register for it, even.
    But I did get into a lengthy discussion with a co-worker who thought the tare was a unit of value and not of weight, and refused to accept that it could have different values depending on the price of what was to be weighed.
    I said “tare” a lot today, come to think of it.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Let’s say you need to weigh something that is sold in a bottle. With an old-fashioned scale (with two plates) the way to make sure you were weighing the contents and not the bottle as well would be to put the full bottle on one side and an empty bottle on the other, or failing an empty bottle, a weight equivalent to the weight of the bottle: in French this is la tare, the weight of the container. On modern scales I would think that the prespecified tare must agree with the weight of standard containers for various types of products, rather than with the price of the product to be weighed. Any weighing specialists around?

  26. John Emerson says

    Andrew, I hope and pray that your health food store will sell darnel seed at some point, under the name “tare”.

  27. John Emerson says

    Further googling shows that the toxicity from darnel / tares is the result of a fungus similar or identical to the one which causes ergotism. Since darnel is also called ryegrass, it may be identical, since ergotism comes from infected rye.
    Darnel could thus be sold as a kind of psychedelic.

  28. Excellent bit of entomological sleuthing. I’m really wondering now about the Spanish verb “tirar”, for “to throw” as in -away; is there a correlation? Similarities in spelling and the close relation of many Arabic and Spanish words make me wonder…

  29. Nope (belatedly). As we’ve worked out elsewhere, tirar in its various Romance forms is probably short for Late Latin martyrare.

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