Common words, uncommon origins

Common words, uncommon origins

I was surprised the other day when someone told me that the title of the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer derives from the game of chess. The French word for chess is échecs, as in the name of the world chess body, Fide, or Fédération Internationale des Échecs. When we say checkmate, we echo the Russian name for chess, shakhmati—“the king is dead". The Moors introduced the abacus in Europe, where it gained wide acceptance. England innovated on it, and instead of a frame with rods and beads, used a large piece of cloth with squares as on a chessboard, and counters representing various sums of revenue due to the crown. Exchequer in the title of the office is derived from échecs.

Another word with a link to Europe is bankrupt. The Italian banca rotta means “broken bench". It is believed that moneylenders in Florence did business in open areas, and each lender had his own bench. When the business failed, they said the bench was broken. Bankrupt is now also used metaphorically, as in “bankrupt of ideas" and “morally bankrupt".

The term benchmark comes from surveying. Surveyors chiselled a horizontal mark on a permanent object and placed a levelling rod there, as a mark to which other levels may be referred. In the world of investment, benchmark refers to a standard against which the performance of your investment in equity or mutual fund can be assessed.

In December, there were frequent references to fat cats. US President Barack Obama denounced the behaviour of the “fat cat bankers of Wall Street". The banks paid their top executives astronomical compensations and bonuses in total disregard of the global downturn. The President pointed out that they were “drawing down $10, $20 million..." after the US went through the “worst economic decades". Fat cat was originally a political term referring to people who contributed to political campaigns, and thereby bought influence and enjoyed privileges. We have come a long way from the days when soldiers got their daily wages in the form of a handful of salt, known by the Latin name of salarium.

Ballpark is an interesting word. At the beginning of the 20th century, it meant a baseball stadium. When announcers gave an estimate of the attendance figure in a stadium, it was called a ballpark figure. Today, it is more often used in the sense of broad approximation, as in the sentence, “Your figures are a little high, but still in the ballpark". Another suggestion is that it refers to the area within which a spacecraft was expected to land. If it landed in or close to the expected area, it was said to be in the ballpark. The phrase “ballpark figure" first appeared in The Wall Street Journal in 1967.

In the last few weeks, there have been several instances of the use of “a level playing field". The meaning is obvious, but it is interesting to see the contexts in which it has been used.

At a meeting between Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in September, the chief issue was the valuation of the yuan. Critics said China was artificially undervaluing its currency. Obama wanted China to offer a level playing field to US business houses. The Chinese premier agreed to continue with the reform of the exchange rate mechanism.

In Europe, makers of six Web browsers urged the European Union to persuade Microsoft to modify its browser choice screen, which directly displays only the top five browsers. Other browsers are not visible until the user scrolls to the right. The small companies protested that they were not getting a fair playing field. They wanted some text to be shown to indicate that there were more options to the right of the screen.

Since the world is today a big marketplace and international trade dealings are on the rise, the call for a level playing field is bound to constantly recur in bilateral negotiations.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column

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