Words-worth: Bankrupt

Technically, only a person can be 'bankrupt', but that hasn't stopped the word being applied lately to everything from the banks to the country. It has been used since the 16th century, when Henry VIII brought in bankruptcy laws. In those days, the term was highly pejorative, applied to fraudulent traders. Its origins, as with many financial terms, are Italian. Banca rotta, from which it was taken, means 'bank broken' or 'bench broken', banca being the source of the word 'bank'. The reference is to the money-changer's bench or table. In his 18th-century dictionary, Samuel Johnson said the expression came about because when an Italian money-changer became insolvent 'his bench was broke'. In modern law, only a person who has been to the bankruptcy court and is having their affairs administered for the benefit of creditors can be called bankrupt. The stigma is supposed to be fading, but the word is still part of the language of abuse: even if you are in funds, you can still be 'morally bankrupt' or 'bankrupt of ideas'.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

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