In a Word: Why Is Bankruptcy So Weird?

People spend so much time avoiding bankruptcy that they don’t even notice how strange a word it is.

broken piggy bank

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

This week, we’re looking at the strange case of bankruptcy. This is not a column about finance, and I’m no economist; I can’t even explain what bankruptcy is with any confidence. No, we’re simply looking at the word bankruptcy and the weird way it evolved.

But before we get to bankruptcy, we need to look at its root.

Bankrupt, which began appearing in English writing in the mid-1500s, came from the Italian phrase banca rotta “broken bench.” It’s believed that Medieval Italian moneylenders conducted their business from benches (bancas) on which they would display their money. When they ran out of money, these financiers would take apart their benches — that is, they would break them down — and go home. Thus “broken benches” came to indicate that one had no more money with which to do business.

The rotta part of banca rotta comes from the Italian verb rompere “to break,” but as the word seeped into English economic jargon, it became more associated with a Latin word meaning the same thing: rumpere, source of words like rupture and corrupt. So banca rotta became the English word bankrupt.

In the 16th century, bankrupt was a verb and an adjective, but eventually a noun form was needed. Through the 17th century, various documents used different versions that followed examples of similar -rupt words, including bankrupting, bankrupture, and bankruption.

Any of those would have been perfectly fine and comprehensible, but for some reason, economists and financiers, by 1700, had coalesced around bankruptcy. The choice was likely influenced by words like tenancy, currency and insolvency, which would have appeared in the same documents, if not the same sentences, as bankruptcy.

But examine those three words: They come from tenant, current, and insolvent. In each case, the final T was dropped before adding -cy. But for some reason the T was retained in bankruptcy.

That consonant cluster ptc is so odd in English that the only other common word that contains it is just two decades old: the strained acronym captcha, which stands for Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. Until 2001, bankruptcy was the only common English word that contained a ptc.

And there’s really no etymological or morphological reason that it should.

Featured image: Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

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  1. A very interesting look at the origins of this important word, even if it isn’t popular. The early Italian origin ‘banca rotta’ sounds almost beautiful; definitely not rotten. After all, sometimes declaring bankruptcy is just what the doctor ordered; especially when life doesn’t give you much choice.


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