Word Stories - July 14, 2023 - 3 min

Money Talks

Millions of people around the world use English for business, but few of us know the true stories behind common English words related to work and money. This Word Stories instalment shines a spotlight on a few terms with both cultural “currency” and connections with the vocabulary of gainful employment.


The ultimate root of the word pay is the classical Latin verb pacare (“to make peace”). It is thereby related at the root to English words like pacifist or pacify. In Vulgar Latin, the idea of making peace by the exchange of money led to the use of pacare to mean simply “to hand money over”. Both senses survived the transition to Old French in the verb paier, and were passed on into English as the word pay in the 1200s. The use of pay to mean “to pacify” or “to please” eventually died out. In modern English, the verb to pay usually refers to the exchange of money. English did, however, develop a range of metaphorical senses. To pay somebody back has come by extension to mean “to take revenge”, for example (from the 17th century onward), in the sense of giving a person the punishment they deserve. In a similar way, paying attention means “being attentive” in the sense of offering something or somebody the kind of careful consideration required (18th century onward).


Dough is first attested in print in the 9th-century medical text Bald’s Leechbook, where it appears as dage—a long-lost spelling that highlights the word’s Germanic pedigree. The guttural gh sound that was originally found at the end of dough faded away over the centuries, as it did in words like though and through. The gh ending survives in writing, though, highlighting the word’s family resemblance to words like the Old Saxon dēg (“to knead”) and the modern German Teig (“dough”).

In more modern contexts, the word has found a variety of uses. Dough is a slang term for money, along with bread (for an early example, see Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, 1848). The connection is presumably bread’s reputation in English as the “Staff of Life”—an association crystallized in the famous King James Bible, where the ancient Greek ton epiousion (“sustenance for strength”) was translated as our daily bread.


Salary entered English via the Anglo-French word salaire, which derives from the Latin word salarium meaning both “salary” (as a noun), and “pertaining to salt” (as an adjective; the Latin word for “salt” being sal). It is often claimed that salarium came to mean “salary” because Roman soldiers either used to receive their pay in salt, or a portion of their pay consisted of an allowance specifically designated for buying salt. However, both of these theories have been criticized for lack of evidence, and it is questionable whether a transportable quantity of salt was ever valuable enough to constitute a realistic salary.

Nevertheless, salt was a valuable commodity for the Romans, as it has been throughout human history: it is an important preserver of food and an essential supplement for agriculture-based diets. So it’s easy to imagine how, as a major component of a person’s livelihood, salt came to be associated with money and, by extension, wages. Regardless of whether soldiers really did have a “salt allowance”, or received their actual wages in salt, the etymological link between salary and salt is clear, even if we are not entirely sure how it came about.


The modern word business derives ultimately from the addition of the suffix -ness to the adjective busy, to make a noun meaning roughly “something one is busy with”. The form is first attested in the text of the Lindisfarne Gospels as “bisignisse” around the year 720. The natural extended connotations of “work” and “industry” appeared later, leading eventually to something like our modern associations of commerce and professional vocation: “Lette euery man do his owne busynes, and folow his callyng”, we read for example in the Notable sermon of ye reuerende father Maister Hughe Latemer (1548).

In the 19th century, the seriousness implied by meaning business made the phrase the colloquial equivalent of “not kidding around,” a sense that survives today. In the same vein, Elvis Presley adopted the Bachman-Turner Overdrive song title “Taking Care of Business” as his motto, because the phrase suggests an impressive way of getting things done. The word business has also long had a related sexy connotation—as seen in the old observation (J. Harington, Epigrams, 1612) that a man who loves his wife “doth her busines” gladly, or the fact that to “be the business” or “look the business” in the UK today means to “be exciting and glamorous”.

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