Another interesting etymology: trade winds have nothing to do with trade in the sense of ‘commerce,’ though as the OED says “the importance of those winds to navigation led 18th c. etymologists (and perhaps even navigators) so to understand the term”; it originates in the phrase to blow trade, meaning ‘in a constant course or way; steadily in the same direction.’ Now, trade, when it was borrowed from Low German in the 14th century, meant ‘course, way, path’ (it’s historically the same word as the native tread, which originally meant ‘footprint’); it developed the sense ‘course, way, or manner of life; course of action,’ whence ‘regular or habitual course of action’ and (of winds) ‘in a regular or habitual course.’ The sense we’re familiar with is a later development: ‘the practice of some occupation, business, or profession habitually carried on.’ The trade winds tread in their habitual paths as we tread in ours.


  1. Martin Watts says

    Fascinating. My geography teacher taught us the 18th century etymology. I’ve shared this with a mailing list of nautical history enthusiasts.

  2. This is really interesting. Too lazy to get up and grab my dictionary right now, but I assume the same etymology is at play in the word tradition?
    Thank you for keeping this blog so consistently and so well. I don’t visit every day, but I enjoy it every time I do.

  3. komfo,amonan says

    Tradition comes from Latin and has a root-boundary between the a and the d. It’s a different word from trade, and has the same root as treason.

  4. Thanks. Treason and tradition, should have seen the family resemblance.

  5. rootlesscosmo says

    Traduttore, traditore, i.e. translator = betrayer, I’m told is an Italian saying.

  6. Here in Hawai‘i the “Trades” are often in the public consciousness. I doubt most people know this etymology, but I’ve pointed it out a few times to fellow linguists and language nerds. Interestingly, the Trades imply a sense here of continuity and regularity, exactly in line with the etymology but probably far removed from it semantically.

  7. The etymology of the Chinese “Tao” is identical. “Tao” simply means “way of”, and the root sense of “tao” is “road”. The philosophical “Tao” is the “way of everything”, though Ch. 1 of Lao Tzu points out that the “way of everything” (= “road to everywhere”) cannot be expressed.
    I’ve even tried to make a connection between Tao and such mischievous Gods of Roads (transformations, exchanges [= trades], betweennesses) as the Egyptian Seth (“God of Confusion”), but so far that’s a stretch.

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