Break the bank

Back to Story: New Insolvency Rules in the Cayman Islands

If the sage advice for visitors to the Strip in Las Vegas today is not to lose one’s shirt, then the wise words for traders at the Roman forum would have been not to break the bank, the bench or the table. When a merchant in medieval Italy – particularly Venice, which was quite the hive of activity – couldn’t pay his debts, the authorities came to the market square and smashed his bench (bancus ruptus) or his table (banca rotta) hence the modern-day expression of breaking the bank – or bankruptcy.

It is said that banking originated in Lombardi where Italian financial traders and brokers sat on benches (banche) in the piazzas (piazze), financing merchants directly or settling trades between sellers and buyers, holding deposits for settlement of trades for buyers or brokers. Speaking of which, the word broker derives from the French brokiere, a person who typically opened bottles of wine and then consumed the contents at his client’s expense.

No surprise, then, that the French also donated the word budget to the language. In the Middle Ages, French tradesmen carried their money in a bouge or bougette, a leather bag or knapsack, which as the word came to mean the contents rather than the bag itself later morphed into the word budget. That’s why, since the 18th Century in Britain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer when making his financial summaries for the year, opens his budget.

In turn, the word negotiate means literally “not to be at ease” or “not to be done at leisure” while the word bill is derived from the Latin bulla or the wax bubble that sealed documents so, in time, the documents that were stamped came to be known by the same name and, in turn, became bills.