It is that time of the year when old men get dressed up in red outfits, designed for a winter in those parts of the world where it actually snows at Christmas. With false beards, they sit sweating in shopping malls and department stores all over South Africa earning a few extra rands for some of the Christmas ‘bargains’ offered in just about every shop.
Unlike most shops, the kids who scramble onto the local Santa’s lap generally stick to the original meaning of the word ‘bargain’. They do so over an exchange of value: they promise good behaviour in exchange for the gifts they want to see in their oversized stocking hanging under or near that plastic pine tree, covered by fake snow and flickering lights, requiring global-warming amounts of fossil fuel-generated electricity.
For the parents, on such occasions, the bargain is not the impossible promises from the kids but the photo opportunity they get of their kids with santa. Once they disappear into the shops, they often get more than they bargained for when they buy some of those ‘bargains’ on offer; come mid-January they are broke, if not on the verge of bankruptcy!
But let’s first go back to the kids and their haggling with Father Christmas. The word bargain started its journey to the English vocabulary probably from the prehistoric Germanic, or Proto-Germanic word brogan meaning to lend and from which also came the word borrow. The next stop was the Frankish word borganjan with the same meaning.
From there the old French word bargaignier developed, still with the original meaning intact. By the 12th century the Modern French word barguigner became used to describe the process of haggling over a price. It is this word that by the late 14th century made its appearance as ‘bargain’ to describe a business transaction or agreement.
It was only by the late 19th century that it acquired the secondary meaning of describing an article or a service obtained at a price below its real value or priced for special sale.
Over the years the word, especially in its most recent context, attracted descriptions by some famous people. Kin Hubbard, the American humorist, cartoonist and journalist for instance described a bargain as “anything a customer thinks a store is losing money on”.
Franklin P. Jones, the public relations executive and humorist, offered this sober observation that “a bargain is something you can’t use at a price you can’t resist”.
For us men, armed with our practical disposition, who are contemplating hunting for something essential as a Christmas gift for the ladies in our lives, should maybe heed the words of Benjamin Franklin if we want to avoid getting more than we bargained for. He once said, “Necessity never made a good bargain”.
Those kids on Father Christmas’s lap should also think twice before they give up on their normal behaviour in exchange for what they think is a gift. Perhaps they should remind the old man where the word ‘gift’ has its roots.
The original meaning of the word, and its dictionary definition in most sources to this day, is ”something given (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/give) voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favour toward someone, to honour an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance”. In short, it is supposed to be a proper present, no strings attached!
Us older guys, who exist in a state of matrimony, will do well to remember that the word ‘gift’ in Old English predominantly carried the meaning of payment for a wife. My black brothers will know it by the name lobola.
The English word ‘gift’ originates from the Proto-Indo-European word ghabh, which, in turn, comes from the Sanskrit word gabhasti, meaning hand of forearm. And no, not an arm and a leg! It indicated the act of putting something in someone else’s hand.
Around the 13th century the word ‘gift’ parted ways somewhat with marital customs and assumed the more general meaning of giving freely to another person or persons.
For those of my brethren who erred by going the essentials route with their gift to a loved one, they could maybe talk themselves out of trouble by quoting Seneca the Younger, the Roman philosopher who lived in the 1st century BC. He said: “A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer”.
As to ending up broke come January, especially because of using a credit card too freely, you would be surprised how far back that danger goes. As the Big Book says, “There is nothing new under the sun”.
During the post Renaissance period some banks extended credit to good customers by issuing them with special small porcelain tiles known as ‘borrower’s tiles’. This first known version of the credit card carried the customer’s name, his credit limit and the name of the issuing bank.
When the customer needed to borrow money he presented his borrower’s tile to a bank clerk who compared the limit indicated on the tile with the amount already borrowed. If the customer was over his limit the clerk broke it there and then!
Have a blessed and happy Christmas, but look after your ‘tiles’ wisely. The year 2013 could be a tough one.