Language Lesson ~ Finance: A Fine Word

Langauge Lessons Dictionary Image Copyright E.S.M.These days, the word “finance” is generally accepted to mean something like “the management of money,” and while “management of money” doesn’t sound quite so bad, the word itself (“finance” or even worse, the plural “finances”) often seems accompanied by a host of psychological and emotional effects including but not limited to: fear, dread, confusion, and sometimes a general feeling of doom.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary provides the following definitions:

  1. (plural) money or other liquid resources of a government, business, group, or individual
  2. the system that includes the circulation of money, the granting of credit, the making of investments, and the provision of banking facilities
  3. the science or study of the management of funds
  4. the obtaining of funds or capital

To the layperson, these definitions may seem rather daunting, especially #2. However, a closer examination of the origins of the word “finance” reveals quite something else and suggests that perhaps the earlier users of the word may have had quite the more optimistic outlook in dealing with their finances.

The word finance first appeared in Middle French around the year 1400, and it simply meant “ending, settlement of a debt.” This usage was derived from the Middle English finis, “a payment in settlement, fine or tax,” which in turn came from the Latin finis, meaning “end,” the origin of the present word “fine.”

If we travel back to c. 1200-1300, however, we see that that the word “fine” also had positive definitions as it still does today. In Latin, French and English, it meant things like “perfected, of highest quality,” “acme, peak, height,” “the highest good,” and “delicate, intricately skillful.”

Debtor and Creditor. Seizure of Goods for a Debt. Image by John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett.Hence, the use of the word “fine” as relates to monetary matters, was to “make fine,” “make one’s peace,” or “settle a matter,” which is a much more positive way of looking at one’s financial affairs.

It wasn’t until 1527 that the word fine began taking on the modern and more negative definition of “sum of money imposed as penalty for some offense,” and 1559 when assigned the verb meaning “to punish by a fine.”

So, for those of us who tend to regard our financial matters as drudgery or a form of punishment, perhaps it would behoove us all to adopt the view of our predecessors and look at it as “making [things] fine.” So, go and make peace with yourself (or your bank account, or creditors, if applicable.)

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary, Merriam-Webster

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