Final Word

Maybe Absa needed letters from France

French letters.jpg

I nearly made a rude mistake, starting off this column this week, wondering how and when the term ‘lifeboat’ came to be used for rescue assistance in a tight financial situation.

What triggered it all, of course, was the fact that the thirty-year-plus-old rescue package to then Bankorp, which became part of Absa Bank, was suddenly became a hot news item.

The term lifeboat made its appearance in English towards the end of the 18th century or early 19th century, with various sources differing a bit in terms of the exact details. But according to the Webster the first known use of the word dates back to 1797.

Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that late in the 18th century in both England and France attempts were made to build “unsinkable” rescue boats after a tragic shipwreck in the mouth of the River Tyne.

The credit for the first non-submersible (“unimmergible”), according Wikipedia, goes to Lionel Lukin, an Englishman “who, in 1784, modified and patented a 20-foot (6.1 m) Norwegian yawl, fitting it with water-tight cork-filled chambers for additional buoyancy and a cast iron keel to keep the boat upright.”

Lukin, ironically, was a London coachbuilder, who used the River Thames to test his “unimmergible” design.

As so often happens with words or terms born in the real, physical word, ‘lifeboat’ soon also developed other, sometimes metaphorical, meanings.

One of the first came, according to the Urban Dictionary, as a slang term for a condom, with also a French connotation – to which we will come further on. In the metaphorical sense, referring to condoms, it is said that the saying went: “Make sure you get in a lifeboat before the ship sinks.”

World of finance

We, unfortunately, could not establish when the term ‘lifeboat’ was first used in connection with the financial sector. But especially since financial crises became a fairly regular feature in the world economy during the 20th century, the idea of financial lifeboats has become a common notion.

The website QFinance describes it as a “rescue measure for business or fund, a measure designed to protect or rescue a failing business or fund” and in the banking sector we also get a “called lifeboat scheme”.

In the case of banking it is describe as a “loan to rescue (a) commercial bank (with) a low interest …” or an “emergency loan made by a central bank to rescue a commercial bank in danger of becoming insolvent”.

The French and condoms

For the sake of our story it is necessary to take a look at another slang term for condoms, French letters, first recorded in 1856.

The Quora website tells us that before the invention of latex rubber, condoms in the 19th century were typically made out of animal membranes, such as sheep intestine. First commonly used in Europe, although some sources claim it stretches back to the  days of the Roman empire.

When this membrane dried out, the condom might resemble a piece of folded paper, probably accounting for the “letter” part of the term.

As to the “French”, no one seems to be sure where that came from and there are a number of guesses around, from: the Englishmen associated the French with sexual promiscuity (the return the favour with their slang term for condom, capote anglaise); to that as far back as the 17th century young touring Europe would enclose an old-style condom with message sent home.

Screwing all together

Many observers are of the opinion that Absa now gets screwed for a financial ‘lifeboat’ negotiated between the then Bankorp and the South African Reserve Bank, which takes us to another term, ‘screwed’, which over the years developed rude and/or sexual connotations.

The word ‘screw’ can be traced back to the Latin word scrofa, for a sow, probably based on the shape pig's penis, since in Latin scrofa also literally meant ‘digger’ or ‘rooter’.

It also explains some other modern words if one consider words like the Portuguese porca and Spanish perca.

The modern metaphorical sense of ‘screwed’ apparently developed in the mid-1600s with a sense of to screw as a means of “exerting pressure or coercion” – guessed at  for no one is absolutely sure – in reference to instruments of torture, especially in prisons, which quickly also gained application for coming under pressure or landing in a bind.

In the early 1700s it also gained a sexual connotation in line with a long-lasting imagery of sexual domination.

And ‘screw’ landed in English during the 14th century via Middle French’s escroe, Designating the nut of a bolt.

Final word

Just maybe, when Bankorp got into their ‘lifeboat’ to survive the stormy financial seas they found themselves in during the late 1980s they should have made sure there was enough financial French letters on board for future use.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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