Brainfood: Words-Worth - Liquidator

Who doesn't experience a guilty thrill at the word 'liquidator'? We all know that it usually means an accountant, but it still conjures up the image of a ruthless assassin.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

That unfortunate association - if you're an accountant - comes from the Russian verb likvidirovat. It was a favourite word of Lenin, even before the revolution gave him the chance to put it into practice. Previously, 'to liquidate' had been free of sinister overtones.

It came from a secondary meaning of the word 'liquid', which had entered English in the 14th century. A liquid is wet but tends also to be transparent.

And in the 17th century, 'liquid' came to describe a clear or transparent argument. The financial meaning followed. A liquid debt was one that was undisputed. Such a debt could then be dealt with, or 'liquidated', a usage first recorded in Dr Johnson's dictionary of 1755. The 'liquidator' arrived 100 years later to enjoy half a century of respectability - before Lenin came along.

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