Final Word

Banking on the bank to bail me out


There has been much talk, since the financial crisis of a decade ago, about the need for changes in the global banking sector, and the manipulation of virtually physically unseen money, on the databases of computers.

Instant calculations are made, and unseen instantaneous messages exchanged, between these databases in what, for most of us, remain an abstract world of the so-called cyber space, when we press a few buttons on an electronic box embedded in a wall on the street.

At the end of this process, through a slit the box a few notes are pushed at us, which we then can take to the corner shop and exchange for some bread, milk, jam and the like, to go and feed the family with.

It all started off very plain and simple back in history.

A good few centuries ago, if you needed a bit of a rest by the time you had the money in your back pocket or handbag during a visit to the market plain, you might have taken a seat on the box containing the money, to catch your breath.

It is from that notion that the institution to which today’s flickering money box belongs, got its name – the bank. In fact, in some languages the piece of furniture in our homes we sit down on, is to this day called a bank, in English commonly called a couch, or closer to our story here, a bench.

There are also non-money related meanings to the word bank. A bank is also a slope of grass or earth, such as a river bank. Both are rooted in a Germanic word, bankiz, or "bank of earth." From this root came words meaning "shelf" and "table."  

But let’s stick to the money.

In the money context, the word bank came to us from the Germanic influence on English via Late Latin’s *bancus, via Norman French baunk (in this case, "bank" means "bench.")

Different historians spin the story slightly differently in the detail, but generally it started in the days of renaissance Italy. After commerce and the arts had revived in Italy, mainly Jewish money handlers in Lombardy had benches in the market-place for the exchange of money and bills. As traders, they became known as bankers.

The word bank is commonly regarded as having derived from the Italian word banco, meaning bench.

And, when a banker failed, his bench was broken by the populace, which in turn gave us the term bankrupt.

Over time more sophisticated money trade businesses developed and by the late 15th century ‘financial institutions’ became known as banks.

As an "institution for receiving/keeping save, and lending money" it was applied from 1620s, and over time, spread to other human activities.

In games of chance (as in card games) "the sum of money held by the gambling house proprietor, or a player playing against the rest," was first recorded as the bank or banker by 1720. Bank holiday, dates to 1871, although it is said that this tradition is “as old as the Bank of England.”

And new expressions, like “laughing all the way to the bank,” followed. As recent as 1956 famous, and flamboyant, pianist Liberace, added “cry all the way to the bank.” That was when a Madison Square Garden concert by him, predicted by critics to be a flop, was packed by patrons.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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