Applied Etymology: Goods and chattels

A lot of us in the business world are concerned in some form or another with property and wealth, be it intellectual or physical.  Historically in English, this has been encompassed by the phrase ‘goods and chattels’, an exotic-sounding expression for the material and the capital which still has a specific use in law.

Unsurprisingly, the meaning of these words has changed over time along with the concepts they signify. Business was once a straightforward case of trading agricultural produce, but now deals in everything from pork futures to pension advice.  Accordingly, the word ‘chattel’, which has come to mean a material possession, derives originally from the same root as ‘cattle’ – reflecting a time when wealth and livestock were semantically inseparable.

In fact, less obviously, ‘capital’ itself comes from the same source: most people will spot its connection to the phrase per capita, or ‘per head’, but had you made the link to the farmer who refers to his ‘hundred head of cows?

How a ‘good’ came to mean a ware or product is more obscure – although the phrase is as indivisible as ‘flotsam and jetsam’, or indeed ‘kith and kin’, another expression referring to cows!

Metaphors tend to take on a life of their own like this in a culture, as concepts change over time.   Another example of this is the English word ‘cloud’, which ultimately comes from ‘clod’, meaning a lump of stuff – the literal word for a cloud, ‘welkin’, has vanished almost entirely from the spoken language.  Properly understood, especially in fields with plenty of innovation, this can be used to a translator’s advantage.

Appreciation of the context and origin of words and idioms in different languages is essential to effective localisation – while they may not want to sell a herd of medieval cows, interpreters are often asked to translate not just words, but concepts between languages.  Although most people can write a shopping list, not everyone can write poetry; being able to trace the root and deeper meaning of a word can be the difference between a translation which is merely technically correct, and one which is really good.

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