Two Etymologies.

My wife asked me “Where does the word tax come from?” and all I could say was “Probably Latin.” So I looked it up, and it turns out that it’s “from Old French taxer, from Medieval Latin taxāre, from Latin, to touch, reproach, reckon, frequentative of tangere, to touch” (AHD). The OED (entry from 1910) provides the vital information that the original sense was “To estimate or determine the amount of (a tallage, fine, penalty, damages, etc.); to assess; rarely, to impose, levy (a tax); also, to settle the price or value of.” It didn’t develop the modern sense “To impose a tax upon; to subject to taxation” until the 14th century (c1330 R. Mannyng Chron. 247 Þe dettes þat men þam auht, þer stedes & þer wonyng, Wer taxed & bitauht to þe eschete of þe kyng).

And the beer expert zythophile, who occasionally comments here, provided a word history that truly astonished me at; I’ll quote his explanation there, since I can’t improve on it:

Spruce beer is made by boiling the leaves and branches of spruce trees – except that etymologically the link is not as simple as it looks. In both cases “spruce” originally meant “from Prussia”, “Spruce” being an early form of the English name of that country (Chaucer called it “Sprewse”). The original spruce beer, mentioned in English first around 1500, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament (“Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur”) was a thick, strong black brew flavoured with an extract from Picea abies, the tree called Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. It was exported to other countries from Danzig, then the main port of Prussia, and just as it was known in English as “Spruce beer”, the beer was known in Danish as Pryssing, the old Danish/Swedish/Norwegian name for Prussia, which in the modern languages is Preussen, the same as it is in German. This thick black beer became very popular in the North of England, where local entrepreneurs made their own variety, frequently in establishments called the “Dantzic [sic] Brewery”, and the last brand of black beer, Mather’s, made in Leeds, disappeared only six years ago. Meanwhile English did not have its own word for Picea abies, which became known as the Spruce tree, the tree from Prussia, since, again that was where it came from. So originally, spruce beer being made from spruce trees was just a coincidence of names, since both were so called because they came from Prussia …

However, subsequently in North America, European explorers found two relatives of Picea abies, Picea rubens, which the English named the red spruce, and Picea mariana, which they called the black spruce. It was quickly found that beers made with extracts of either of these two trees were extremely good at keeping scurvy away (since they were rich in Vitamin C), and spruce beer was adopted by both the British Army and the Royal Navy: indeed, it has been argued that spruce beer helped the British defeat the French and conquer Canada, by keeping troops healthy who would otherwise have fallen ill with scurvy. By then, of course, the origins of the name “spruce” in a term for something from Prussia had been forgotten, and this beer was called “spruce beer” because it was made from spruce trees … (Jane Austen was a fan of North American-style spruce beer, a taste she probably got from her brothers in the Royal Navy, and the drink receives a couple of mentions in Emma.)

The OED (entry updated March 2019) agrees about the etymology: “< Spruce, Spruse, Sprws, Sprewse, etc. (late 14th cent. or earlier: see note), variant or alteration of Pruce, former name in English of Prussia (see pruce adj.).” The note at the end says:

The origin of the initial S– of the country name is unclear. It has been suggested that it may reflect misanalysis within English of a construction in a language spoken in the course of Hanseatic trade, such as Polish z Prus from Prussia or Middle High German das Priuzen Prussia, des Priuzens (genitive) of Prussia. However, the initial S– of the English name may simply be an excrescent phonological development.

Also, I can’t resist passing on this passage from Anand Giridharadas’s devastating NYT review of Jared Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval (“Then, before long, the first mistake caught my eye; soon, the 10th. Then graver ones. Errors, along with generalizations, blind spots and oversights, that called into question the choice to publish…”):

There is also a systemic issue here. The time has come for those of us who work in book-length nonfiction to insist that professional fact-checking become as inalienable from publishing as publicity, marketing and jacket design — and at the publisher’s expense rather than as a cost passed on to the author, who, understandably, will often choose to spend her money on health care.

Fun dayn moyl in gots oyern!


  1. Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur

    Can we reinstate that word as a combo of stumble and stammer?

    I’m very taken with the idea of Jane Austen knocking back a couple of pints of heavy black beer in the evening, after a long day relating all the gossip and bon mots at the vicar’s tea party.

  2. Trond Engen says

    From Zythophile: the beer was known in Danish as Pryssing, the old Danish/Swedish/Norwegian name for Prussia, which in the modern languages is Preussen, the same as it is in German.

    Almost.. Pryssing must be the old demonym, modern prøyser. Similarly Pryssen vs. modern Prøysen. These forms are not particularly native. I think the change from y to øy (Da. øj, Sw. öj) came with the increasing influence of High German.

  3. I’ll pass that along, thanks!

  4. David Marjanović says

    das Priuzen

    Why “the Prussia”?

  5. Stu Clayton says

    Merely because every noun in German “has a gender”, as the grammarians put it. Duden gives for the word Hessen the information Substantiv, Neutrum. Another way to formulate that would be Es heißt “das Hessen”.

    What’s remarkable is that Hessen is in fact almost never referred to as “das Hessen” in actual, normal speech. Das Hessen, in the previous sentence, “refers” to grammar stuff, not to the administrative geographical envelope of Frankfurt.

    Exception: Das Hessen der neunziger Jahre

    The quoted passage is a ham-fisted attempt to marry a declination with a speculation, to explain the initial “s” in “spruce”:

    # … Middle High German das Priuzen Prussia, des Priuzens (genitive) of Prussia #

    Pretty far-fetched if you ask me, and even if you don’t. I vote excrescence.

  6. John Cowan says

    Why “the Prussia”?

    Same reason as die/the Ukraine, I bet: both of them originally had vague borders, being themselves borderlands of an empire.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Das Preußen” is not a thing said or written, no more than “das Frankreich” is. But the French always say and write “la France“. Does the vague border theory predict that ?

    Die Pfalz, Niedersachsen, das Sauerland, Hessen. Isso. The French versions all take “la” up front. C’est comme ça.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    There is no functional isomorphism between “le/la” and “der/die/das”. If there were one, it would be hyper-complex and thus have no cash value.

  9. Middle High German is not Modern German, and your intuitions about article usage are useless when it comes to that early stage of the language.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    They are facts of Modern German, not intuitions. I rely not on intuitions about MHG, of which I have none, but on the OED as you quote it:

    # .. may reflect misanalysis … However, the initial S– of the English name may simply be an excrescent phonological development. #

    There is nothing there about MHG intuitions in speakers of MHG. It’s all about middle-height English-speaker takes on MHG.

  11. After tax, I thought your second etymology would be task, which comes from the same word by metathesis (which occurred in Latin).

  12. David Marjanović says

    Forgot to mention…

    “To estimate or determine the amount of (a tallage, fine, penalty, damages, etc.); to assess; […] also, to settle the price or value of.”

    That’s still what taxieren means!

    On articles in modern German I completely agree with Stu, and it just occurs to me that the places that do take an article never seem to be neuter. I’m not even aware of any dialectal variation in this – personal names always take articles in my dialect and many others, and so do mass nouns*, but only the same few place names as in the standard do. So, I vote z Prus.

    * Indefinite “a” e.g. in “do you have some/any water/sand/money”, but even in “that’s water” or “when there’s snow on the ground”.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    it just occurs to me that the places that do take an article never seem to be neuter

    Except for das Sauerland. Maybe imposed by Land ? But Nordfriesland without ??

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Der Westerwald, das Vorarlberg !

  15. I haven’t read the new J. Diamond book, but was amazed at the errors that review included. Besides the onus on the author, editor, and publisher, it is “a caution” to read (available at amazon) the six glowing blurbs.

  16. Stu Clayton says


  17. Kate Bunting says

    That makes a bit more sense of the King James Bible’s statement that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem ‘to be taxed’, which more modern versions render as ‘enrolled’ or ‘registered’.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    Nowadays the IRS comes to your home if need be.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Except for das Sauerland.

    Yes, and maybe I can explain them away as more “land” than “country”. A bit like the Midlands in England, perhaps.

    But then, das Burgenland.

    das Vorarlberg

    Oh no – like Hessen: only in das Vorarlberg der neunziger Jahre.

    Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem ‘to be taxed’

    Huh. The German version seems to have always been “to (let themselves) be counted”, as part of a census.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    Duden says Vorarlberg is neuter, like Hessen. I didn’t know whether it too rejects a das, I mentioned it merely because I had expected der, like Westerwald. Maybe it’s because Vorarlberg is a Gebirge, not a Berg.

    In Austria stress on the second syllable! Makes sense.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Easily the most widespread French loan in northern Ghana and surrounding areas is l’impôt, reflecting the seriousness with which Europeans took their mission of bringing progress to Africa.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Easily the most widespread French loan in northern Ghana and surrounding areas is l’impôt, …

    Reminding us that tax is another example of a word we got from French, but which they’ve largely dropped themselves in favour of impôt.

  23. John Cowan says

    WP.en gives the pronunciation as [ˈfoːɐ̯ʔaʁlbɛʁk], which puts the stress where expected given that separable prefixes are stressed, but those postvocalic [ʁ]s sound weird in a non-rhotic (usual) pronunciation. Apparently the etymology in Standard spelling is Voradelberg.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    The older sense of “tax” survives in the legal-jargon variety of AmEng, where the process of determining (if disputed) which of the prevailing party’s litigation-related expenses must be reimbursed by the losing party is called (at least if disputed) “taxation of costs,” i.e. an assessment aimed at determining the exact dollars-and-cents amount that must be paid.

  25. John Cowan says

    There is also the delightful Latin word dumtaxat, which began as a phrase meaning ‘while measured’ and wound up as an adverb meaning (in good Latin fashion) either ‘not more than’ or ‘not less than’, and then ‘only, merely’. Illiterates tended to spell it duntaxat, which was probably the usual pronunciation.

  26. Seong of Baekje says

    Ironically, the book Giridharadas mentions at the end of the article (These Truths by Jill Lepore) as a positive example to contrast with the sloppiness of Upheaval is also riddled with basic errors. See the critical Amazon reviews for examples.

  27. Huh? Here are the Amazon review percentages:
    5 star 68%
    4 star 12%
    3 star 8%
    2 star 5%
    1 star 7%
    I’ve heard nothing but good about the book, and Lepore is a fine writer and historian. I don’t doubt there are occasional errors in a book almost a thousand pages long, but I suspect you have a parti pris.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Parti pris? Surely a sixth-century Korean monarch has as much right as the next deceased historical personage to have strong opinions about the historical course of broadcast regulation in 20th-century America and agree that Lepore’s superficial endorsement of the conventional wisdom is deficient.

  29. David Marjanović says

    but those postvocalic [ʁ]s sound weird in a non-rhotic (usual) pronunciation.

    Wikipedia’s diaphonemic-oid transcription of German is weird in general. In this respect, it reflects the situation farther down the Rhine, where the accents are non-rhotic after long but rhotic, with a uvular fricative unspecified for voice, after short vowels. The final fortis [k] is a telltale sign of northern flatlands*, too.

    Always penultimate stress in Austria, including apparently all of the many different dialects of Vorarlberg (we’ve had a thread featuring a long list of songs in like 10 of them). Probably it isn’t parsed as consisting of separate morphemes.

    * Relative. All relative.

    Apparently the etymology in Standard spelling is Voradelberg.

    No, the Arlberg is a real mountain, and Tyrol (Tirol) lies behind it. The /d/ you have in mind (from the mentioned thread) occurs in one non-rhotic dialect that inserts it into the hiatus between the /aː/ and the syllabic /l/.

  30. David Marjanović says
  31. Those do seem like troubling errors suggesting a Diamond-like distance from her topic (for instance, Jefferson tying Adams), and surprising emphases (Shays’ rebellion getting more attention than the Revolution), that seem at face value hard to support, if the reviews are accurate.

  32. Naturally, Lepore and Epstein agree on the idea that international trade can never be fettered in our best of all possible worlds. No one ever grapples with the hard facts, inconvenient to our elites, of Henry Adams. Not even historians who purport to grapple with the period.

  33. Richard Hershberger says

    Diamond: That was a devastating review, in the sense that I am persuaded to skip a book that I otherwise might well have purchased. On Diamond having achieved Established Geezer status, where people nod sagely at errors that would ruin a younger career, I am reminded of an essay by Bill James, the baseball stats guy, on the obscure question of should the Union Association of 1884 be classified as a major league. A friend of mine reacted to the piece by saying that you have really arrived when you can publish a piece that bad, riddled with openly made-up facts and arguments that don’t even pretend to be fully baked, and no one blinks.

    As for publishers and fact-checking, the absolute worst book on baseball history–and that is a fiercely competitive category–is by a humanities professor at an excellent college and published by Columbia University Press. I am grateful for this, as it stripped me of any lingering naivety about such things.

  34. J.W. Brewer says: The older sense of “tax” survives in the legal-jargon variety of AmEng, …“taxation of costs,”

    Same for Australian legalese.

  35. AJP Crown says

    And the same for Norwegian non-legal. Valuation, tariff, appraisal is what the Norwegian word takst means.

  36. Even public transport and taxi prices are called takster here.

  37. January First-of-May says

    That’s still what taxieren means!

    *lightbulb moment* taxi “one that is charged for”.

    (Wiktionary says that it’s not that simple, but still comes from the same Latin root.)

    And the same for Norwegian non-legal. Valuation, tariff, appraisal is what the Norwegian word takst means.

    Russian has такса, which I think just means “price, tariff”.

    Сев в такси, спросила такса:
    “За проезд какая такса?”
    А водитель: “Денег с такс
    Не берём совсем. Вот так-с!”

    (The homonymous word такса “dachshund”, which also shows up in the same short poem, is apparently just a borrowing of German Dachs(hund), literally “badger (dog)”; I’m not sure whether the initial /t/ points at the borrowing being phonetic, originating from a non-standard German dialect, or both.
    As for the final так-с, it’s one of the last remnants of slovoyers.)

  38. And that reminds me of Kozma Prutkov’s great Кондуктор и тарантул.

  39. I though that the most interesting thing about the etymology for tax is that the term ultimately went back to a word meaning “touch,” because there is another English idiom that uses “touch” to mean asking for money. To ask to borrow money from an acquaintance is to “touch [them] for a loan.”

  40. taxi — also called taxa in Danish, reportedly after French taximètre through French or German or English taxi(meter cab) — but the eponymous taxation device is only ever taksameter in Danish, from the German form. Somebody in Germany thought they knew Latin better than the French, I guess.

  41. AJP Crown says

    Aha. The taximeter – taxameter, in German – was invented by Mies’s father-in-law Friedrich Wilhelm Gustav Bruhn. The first meter was on the first taxi, Daimler’s Victoria model (named presumably after Kaiser Bill’s mum the German empress, not after QV) and it must be the reason why the American taxis are called Crown Victoria (this was discussed recently).

    Gasometer, if anyone’s interested, abridged from Wiki sources:
    1. Lavoisier devised the gazomètre to enable him to weigh gas.
    2. James Watt Jr & Thos Beddoes constructed a short-lived piece of medical equipment that incorporated a gazomètre. He [sic] adapted it for coal-gas storage.
    3. ‘Gasometer’ in English was first used by the inventor of gas lighting Wm Murdoch, in 1782, as the name for his gas holders. Despite objections from Murdoch’s associates that it’s a container not a meter, you useless twit, the name came into general use.

  42. John Cowan says

    Not to be confused with the gasogene, a device for charging a liquid with carbon dioxide. The lower half contains the liquid, the upper half contains baking powder (sodium bicarbonate plus a mild and unflavored edible acid like tartaric acid).

    The officers of the Baker Street Irregulars (the modern literary society, not the Canonical group of street urchins) are known as the Gasogene and the Tantalus < tantalus ‘small wooden container with a handle holding two to three glass decanters’. Both of these objects are to be found in Holmes’s sitting room.

  43. The lower half contains the liquid, the lower half containsbaking powder

    Which of those should be “upper”?

  44. John Cowan says

    Oops, the second. The gas forces the liquid out of the lower bowl and up a tube leading to the spray valve. Please add the missingspace as well: I saved prematurely.

  45. Done.

  46. Parts of the federal code setting up the IRS were written in iambic taxameter.

  47. I guess bastard Latin-Greek compounds are turncoats, sometimes they show the Latin compounding -i-, sometimes the Greek -a- and none can gainsay either. (Latin does have metrum, but only for verses).

  48. AJP Crown says

    the code setting up the IRS was written in iambic taxameter so the author could deduct his federal salary under “writing poetry”.

  49. the “S-Preusen” thing reminds me of how Porto is also known as Oporto in English, because the British didn’t realize that PT uses definite article with personal and place names. Truthfully, now that I’m learning PT in earnest, I still trip over the article/preposition usage since every rule is shot through with exceptions. (Case in point – cities don’t usually take the definite article but Porto does, along with Rio and a few others. The exceptions are often hilariously concentrated in the Mondo Lusofono, a grouping of which I had little or no awareness prior to starting with PT).

  50. Isn’t O Porto just “the port,” a plain noun that became a proper noun over time?

  51. AJP Crown says

    “PT” is Portuguese? To me, it’s Physical Training. It’s Oporto in English, so call it “Porto” and I’ll think there are two places. Are the Portuguese changing from Londres to “London”?

    late 14c., Portyngale, from Medieval Latin Portus Cale (Roman name of modern Oporto), “the port of Gaya,” from Latin portus “harbor, port” (see port (n.1)). Alfonso, Count of Portucale, became the first king of Portugal.

    I’m reverting to Portyngale. I like this from the summary of Torrent of Portyngale:

    The King of Norway requests Torrent’s help with yet another giant…

  52. John Cowan says

    Porto is also known as Oporto in English, because the British didn’t realize that PT uses definite article with personal and place names.

    And similarly with Owhyhee and Otaheite, which are just o Hawaiʻi and o Tahiti respectively as James Cook and his crew heard them. Fortunately these were changed except in the common names of some species and some place names in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Note the reduction of the first vowel of Hawaiʻi to zero, causing the /h/ and /w/ to coalesce into /ʍ/, still universally a phoneme in English in Cook’s time.

  53. Seong of Baekje says

    Lepore’s book: Here’s a small sample of the howlers pointed out in Amazon reviews:

    “Page 8: No, pre-Columbian American Indians did NOT herd pigs because there were none in the New World!”

    “on p.298 of the Kindle version, that Virginia just prior to the Emancipation Proclamation was “a border state not part of the Confederacy”; of course, at the time in question Virginia was hardly a “border state”; Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy”

    “that Roosevelt was accompanied to Yalta by “fighter jets””

  54. I remember Lepore being interviewed on Fresh Air a few years ago, and she said something that seemed glaringly wrong to someone who was knowledgeable about the matter. However, that fact was pretty much irrelevant to the main point she was making. Many of the errors (about matters such as the age of the universe) pointed out in the Amazon reviews seemed similarly tangential to Lepore’s main points about American political history. Lepore always provides a compelling-sounding narrative; however, when somebody makes irrelevant but repeated errors, it makes me a little suspicious of whether their main thesis is similarly poorly researched.

  55. Rodger C says

    that Virginia just prior to the Emancipation Proclamation was “a border state not part of the Confederacy”

    I suspect West Virginia was floating around in her head. The two are constantly confused, to the great annoyance of West Virginians.

  56. John Cowan says

    New Mexicans are even more annoyed for an analogous reason. I have not heard of people conflating New York with York, however. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for many years a Senator from New York State, began his newsletters with the phrase “Dear Yorker”, but eventually changed it to “Dear New Yorker”.

  57. per incuriam says

    It’s Oporto in English

    Not any more, nowadays the airlines all fly to Porto (though the O lingers on in the IATA code OPO) and any time the place makes the news Porto is what it’s called in the UK press (see for example reports of the latest heroics by British football supporters).

    In Spanish it’s still Oporto. A few hundred km up the road, the Galician capital is now officially A Coruña, no doubt a kick in The Groyne for the Real Academia which recommends La.

  58. Owlmirror says

    I have to wonder if the original comment above about Oporto was meant to refer to the place or to the drink.


Speak Your Mind