by Piet Coetzer

Broken by a broker

Brokers are not as blessed as they used to be

Broker man.jpg

Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?” was the question posed in a recent email. It got my imagination going on all sorts of ironic possibilities. Most were way off the mark but not totally inappropriate within a whole family of words appertaining to financial matters. 

While the wildly reckless financial broker could become “the man who broke the bank,” the 'broke' in the term 'broker' and the 'broke', as in ruined the bank, is not quite the same thing and they have totally different roots.

There is more than one theory about where the term “broker” comes from. But, considering the fact that brokers mostly get paid a commission at the end of a transactions for their role as middlemen they play in concluding those transactions, the likelihood is high that it derives from the Anglo-Norman word broucour which means a business deal.

Probably appropriately, in the light of the hopes on both sides of a brokered transaction for blessed results, the word broucour can be traced back to an ancient tradition of makings gifts at the conclusion of a business deal. The term, in turn from an Arabic word for blessing, barka or baraka.

This Arabic term is also related to other Semitic words, like baruch meaning blessed and with which most Hebrew blessings are started off with.

The Spanish also have a word, alboroque, meaning a “ceremony or ceremonial gift after the conclusion of a business deal."

The other contending and quite valid theory, is that the term broker derives from the Old French word broceur, which means a small trader. It is guessed that the word comes from the other Old French word brocheor, for a wine retailer, which in turn derives from brouchier for "to broach (a keg)."

A broche is also spiky tool used for piercing. There was a time that a brouche, which was T-shaped with a drill bit type end was used during wine auctions to pierce sample barrels. A tap was insertedso that potential buyers could taste the wine from a pitcher, called a broc,and make their offers to buy based on the quality of the wine.

The word 'broker' was first recorded in writing in Middle English in 1355. It was more than three centuries later in 1687 that we find the man today’s broker might drive you to in an attempt to survive, namely a 'pawnbroker'. It took another almost twenty years to 1706 before the 'stockbroker' made his appearance.

Incidentally, the 'pawn' in 'pawnbroker' indicates something left in pledge as security in exchange for something else, like money on loan. It dates back to the late 15th early 16th century and derived from the Latin word pignus, meaning to pledge, via the Old French word pan or pant.

It is also identical to the Old French word, pan for cloth or a piece of cloth; in this case from another Latin word pannum, which, besides cloth, could also indicate a garment. It is also interesting to note that cloth was at times used as a medium of exchange.

While the word 'broker' has nothing to do with breaking anything, if his advice leaves you bankrupted or broke or if his activities brake the bank, it has everything to do with breaking something.

During the time of the Renaissance, the Florentine bankers did their business of exchanging money on top of desks or benches called banca in Italian. And, which later became banco. From there, the terms 'bank' and 'bankers'.

When some of these early bankers failed, their benches were broken which then became a banco rotto or a broken bench. And there we have not only the roots of the term 'bankruptcy' but also of the term 'going broke'. 

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