Final Word

The corrupt speed cop a beggar?


Whether a politician offers hundreds of thousands rands to influence the vote of colleagues or whether a speed cop accepts R20 to ignore a traffic violation, it is the same thing – bribery.

But at least the speed cop might be closer to the roots of where the term for this form of corruption comes from.

The great irony is that the word ‘bribe’ started off its journey into the English language as a token of grace and mercy towards the destitute – although there is not a, definitive, final explanation of where it comes from.

Be that as it may, the politician who recently in Johannesburg allegedly offered a huge sum of money as a bribe to members of an opposition party, to vote with his party, could do so out of a position of abundance. The traffic policeman or speed cop, if you want, probably accepts a ‘bribe’ to supplement his meagre salary.

The beggars started it

column on the etymology of words on the website of the BBC tells us: “The origin of bribe is obscure, and its semantic history is particularly involved. The word first turns up in Old French, as a noun meaning ‘piece of bread, especially one given to a beggar’. From this, the progression of senses seems to have been to a more general ‘alms’; then to the ‘practice of living on alms’; then, pejoratively, to simple ‘begging’. “From there it was a short step to ‘stealing’, and that was the meaning the verb had when first recorded in English. The shift to the current application to financial corruption occurred in the 16th century, originally, it seems, in the context of judges and others in authority who exacted, or ‘stole’, money in exchange for favours such as lenient sentences.”

Most other sources we could find on the subject take a similar line and place it somewhere between 1350 and 1400 in Middle English, coming from Old French bribe, meaning a bit, piece, hunk or morsel of bread given to beggars. From the same period, we also have Old French’s bribeor (‘vagrant, beggar’), from briber, brimber (‘to beg’).

Generally, explanations of the word’s origin cite Randle Cotgrave's 1611 French-English dictionary which gives the word’s French meaning as ‘a peece, lump or cantill of bread given to a begger’.

He also quotes a proverb which says there is no life like that of a company of beggars “quand ils ont assemblé leurs bribes” - when they have pooled their ‘bribes’.

Modern meaning

The quoted BBC column says it took a while for ‘bribe’ to settle down to its modern meaning of an illicit gift made to secure favourable treatment.

In the early 16th century it was still possible to use ‘briber’ to mean one who extorts a bribe, rather than offers it, and the meaning of ‘bribe’ can be very close to ‘blackmail’.

The jurist and philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1605, in a (very free) translation of Proverbs 28.21, that “a judge were better be a briber than a respecter of persons; for a corrupt judge offendeth not so lightly as a facile”.

More modern translations put it differently, but it remains clear that the temptation of bribery goes way back. The New International Version of the Bible has the same verse as: “To show partiality is not good – yet a man will do wrong for a piece of bread.”

Final word

In most jurisdictions across the globe bribery, especially in association with political power and positions of authority, is regarded as a form of corruption and outlawed. But that the law is not very successful in dealing with it, is illustrated by the fact that bribery around the world is estimated at about $1 trillion.

by Piet Coetzer

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