Banks have recently been front-page news once again, this time thanks to the Franco–Belgian bank Dexia. Without some kind of rescue plan, it appeared that the bank was in danger of hitting the skids.
Banks in trouble are music to media ears since they know it will catch the attention of a great many people, some of whom will be scurrying to withdraw their cash and put it somewhere safer, like under the mattress.
Banks were not always so high-profile. The sense of bank as a place where money is kept came into English in the early 17th century, but linguistically bank comes from distinctly humble beginnings. The word in the sense of financial institution is generally considered to be derived from the Italian word banca, meaning a bench or shelf, or from French banque. Both of these were probably derived ultimately from an old Germanic word.
In medieval Italy, banca was used to refer to any tradesman’s bench or counter. Then a touch of specialisation crept in and banca came to mean specifically a moneylender’s bench or counter. Thus was born the word bank. It has certainly pulled itself up by its bootstraps since then.
The moneylender’s bench is also the source of the word bankrupt, a state that many people will doubtless find themselves in before the current economic troubles come to an end (if they ever do). When an Italian medieval moneylender suffered from a shortage of money and could no longer see his way open to continuing in business, his bench was broken up and he shut up shop. He was said to be bancarotta, this word being derived from banca rotta, a broken bench. The method was certainly cheaper than going through the bankruptcy courts.
The financial meaning of the word bank may not have come into play in English until the 17th century, but the concept of the bank and banker is a very old one. Priests in the temples of long, long ago Mesopotamia may have been the first forerunners of bankers. They lent out sums of money to people for a set period and charged interest on these loans, and the germ of the banking system gradually developed from there.
Early loan agreements between lender and borrower were recorded on tablets made of clay and kept by the lender. When the loan was duly paid off in full the clay tablet was smashed into pieces, being no longer relevant. Moneylending seems once to have been rather a violent activity, what with the early Italian moneylenders breaking up their benches and the Mesopotamian priests breaking up their lending records. Clearly a smashing time was had by all.
By the late 11th century the concept of the bank was becoming more sophisticated. At that time the authorities in Venice decide to impose a levy on the citizens to help pay the expenses incurred by war. The committee of people who were responsible for handling this money later turned themselves into what was more or less a bank.
Britain trailed far behind this enterprise. It was not until the early 17th century that one Lawrence Hoare, a goldsmith in London, set up a similar institution and began accepting cash deposits from customers.
Banks have brought a couple of idioms to the language, one of which harks back to the smashing theme. This idiom was formerly found mostly in the negative form, not to break the bank, meaning that something was not very expensive and so was within budget. Nowadays, this negative aspect is fading and a lot of quite ordinary things, like heating your house, are indeed breaking the bank.
Then there is laughing all the way to the bank. This activity is now enjoyed only by a few, the banks in question being mainly offshore.
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.