On buying and selling | OUPblog

As strange as it may seem, the origin of the verb to buy remains a pointless subject of debate, at least in part because we don’t know what this verb meant before it acquired the modern meaning. For us, the process of buying or buying has no mystery: it is about obtaining goods in exchange for money. However, in the distant past, people to buy goods: they produced them for their own consumption or exchanged them for other goods. Typically, money and mint are words of Roman origin. To buy is also a borrowing from Old French, and that too meant “to obtain, to acquire” rather than “to buy”. In our earliest Germanic texts, gifts were often exchanged but rarely sold and bought. Although the body of Old English texts is not so small, the verb bycganthe ancestor of to buy, did not occur in extant literature until the twelfth century (that is, as far as Old English is concerned, very late). At that time, it meant “redeem, redeem”. A century later, this verb appeared with the meaning “to expiate”. The meaning known today is posterior.

In the Germanic-speaking world, only Icelandic has retained a rich ancient native prose and, while reading the sagas, we note with surprise the rarity of goods bought or sold. The money existed and was highly valued, but no one had ever “gone shopping”. Silver and gold, as well as precious metal artifacts, were constantly used as gifts and as compensation for murders and other crimes, but banks, moneylenders, loan sharks and the many dependencies of the subsequent economy did not exist. However, one could buy a boat and a slave. One of the central characters of the Njal’s Saga tried, at the time of the famine, to buy hay and cheese from a neighbor, but this is not a typical case. Anyway, the neighbor refused the request and we don’t know the details of a possible deal. In another story, the king wanted to buy a polar bear. Thus, trade was not the backbone of their economy. Curiously, a related of bycgan existed in Old Icelandic, but this verb, spelled byggan, meant “to buy a wife; get married” (exactly as in Hebrew: makar!) and “lend or rent”.

Obtaining a wife in the Middle Ages.
(Marriage of Bohemond I, Prince of Antioch, and Constance, daughter of King Philip I of France, circa 1106, Chronicle of Ernoul and Bernard the Treasurer. British Library, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.)

In the 4th century gothic bibletranslated from Greek, bugjan (also used with various prefixes) occurs multiple times. This makes the Greek verb meaning “to buy”. And with a prefix, the same verb means “to sell”. The word that Bishop Wulfilathe translator of the Gothic Bible, lives in Greek is agoradzein. Now the Greek agora meant “(a public place of) meeting; market”. It occurs in Luke XIV:18. Wulfila of course knew the meaning of the name agora, but it is unclear how he understood the verb. Characteristically, a verbal noun with the same root as in bugjan and a prefix, namely Faur Bauhts (vowel variation is regular and consonants are regular) meant “redemption” and corresponded to Greek apolútrōsis‘, and we have seen that Old English bycgan also meant “to redeem”.

The oldest meaning of the verb that has come down to us as Old English bycgan seems to have meant “to make a good deal; redeem; get a wife” and had something to do with the exchange. Multiple login attempts to buy with the Germanic verb meaning “to bend”, as, for example, the German good. English bow “bend” is an exact match for bigan. The evolution from “bending” to “submitting, putting something under one’s control” is possible but not too convincing. Goods change hands, i.e. “move”, as evidenced, for example, by poleo “sell” versus pelo “to move.” The postulated connection with “bending” is not unreasonable. Predictably, even scholars who accept it aren’t overly enthusiastic, while the most cautious dictionaries prefer to say about to buy “Origin not disclosed”.

Mercurius, the great protector of merchants and thieves.
(Gunzenhausen Archaeological Museum via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 1.0)

The strange spelling to buy comes back in busy and to build. Old English had a vowel like German a. (That’s why the older form was spelled btherecgan.) This vowel changed differently in different dialects of Middle English: either it became short I or developed in short and or short you (as heard in today’s news pet and put). The modern form to buy has southern pronunciation and western spelling (one of the pleasures of our unreformed spelling).

Some other hypotheses concerning the origin of to buy are not better (perhaps from the root meaning “to enjoy”, i.e. “to acquire and enjoy, possess, possess”, with a single reference to Sanskrit) or fanciful (b- is a prefix, etc.). Only one thing is probable: in the past, to buy meant “to make a deal”; free by paying a ransom” or something like that. “Flection” does not come close enough to these senses to arouse universal enthusiasm.

The verb to sell exists in the same chiaroscuro. Its gothic form –saljan appears twice in Wulfila’s text, both times with a prefix (hence my hyphen), and the prefixes differ. However, it means “to offer a sacrifice”. The verb has regular cognates throughout Germanic, but German has lost it (German for “sell” is kaufenrelated to english cheap; this word is of Latin origin). The problem is that, as I just noted, the gothic saljan meant “to sacrifice” rather than “to obtain payment”. Obviously, for to sell to signify what it does to us, people needed a system of exchanging goods for money. Words with the same root and more or less corresponding meanings exist outside Germanic: in Greek and Celtic. But s and I are not subject to the Germanic consonant shiftbecome non-Germanic p, youand k in F, andand hso that all sorts of chance coincidences (unrelated sl formations) are possible in this group of words. In Gothic, another saljan “to be a guest of” was also recorded. The few attempts to reduce them to the same etymon, although ingenious, do not carry conviction.

Yes saljan is indeed related to the Greek ‘elein “to take” (the initial aspiration of the Greek verb goes back to s), then gothic saljan ‘to sacrifice’, which of course presupposes offering, giving something, must be distorted in the sense of ‘to be given, to receive’. This tour de force is not unthinkable, since verbs sometimes combine opposite meanings, but to reconstruct the origin of an obscure word, the less assumptions made, the better.

Books on the origins of words are always in demand.
(Jeremy Brooks via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0)

It is curious to observe the origin of all our simplest commercial words. For example, Trade is a loan from a fourteenth century Low German dialect and meant “track, course, path”. It is related to the verb tread. Modern German Handel simply means “to do” (corresponding to the verb handeln “operate, execute”). Trader and merchandise are romantic loans (via Old French). Don’t forget Mercurius, the patron saint of merchants and, alas, thieves. Unfortunately, the etymology of the two most basic English verbs of commerce (to buy and to sell) remains partly unknown. I’m sorry to say this, but I sincerely hope that our readers buy into this unsatisfactory conclusion without sorrow or complaint.

Featured image by Khuc Le Thanh Danh on Unsplash. Public domain.

About Patrick K. Moon

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