Thursday, May 14, 2015

Language of Confusion: The Tributes, Part I

There are a surprising amount of words related to tribute, hence the “Part I” in the title. This week will be the words that begin with trib-.

Tribe first showed up in the mid thirteenth century, referring specifically to the ancient Hebrew tribes rather than groups of people in general. It came from the Old French tribu and classical Latin tribus, which means three and referred to the three ethnic divisions of Rome and later on the 30+ political divisions. So because some guys translated a word from the Bible as tribe and some other guys divided the ethnicities of Rome into three groups, we have the word tribe now.

We also have tribute, which I’m sure will be in no way convoluted. It showed up in the mid fourteenth century, so a century after tribe, meaning money or something else valuable given from one ruler to another in order to keep them from attacking you—basically, it was like protection money paid to the mob. It comes from the Anglo French tribute and Old French tribute, and before that, the classical Latin tributum, taxes. That word comes from the verb tribuere, grant or allot, and descended from tribus.

Next we’re going to look at tribune and tribunal. The former came first, in the late fourteenth century, coming from the title of a Roman official, tribunus, and of course it’s related to tribus, haven’t you learned anything? Tribunal showed up a little later, in the early fifteenth century from the Old French tribunal and classical Latin…tribunal. Wow, not trying at all. Anyway, it literally translates to platform, because that was the seat for the magistrates (AKA the tribunus).

Tributary, which is what we call a body of water combining with a bigger body of water, didn’t get that meaning until the early nineteenth century. Before that, it just meant a person or country or whatever that pays tribute to someone else, a meaning it had when it showed up in the late fourteenth century. It came from the classical Latin tributarius, paying money or forced labor, which comes from tributum, which you may remember from two paragraphs ago as meaning taxes.

Finally, you may know the word tribulation and be thinking how it well fit with the others since tribulations certainly feel like something you have to pay. Ha ha, no. Not related. Like, at all. Tribulation showed up in the early thirteenth century from the Old French tribulacion and the Ecclesiastical Latin (which is a variety of Late Latin used in churches, because they just had to have their own language for church) tribulationem, distress or affliction. Apparently the Christians back then took the classical Latin word tribulare, to press, in a metaphoric sense. It comes from the word tribulum, which means thistle or threshing sledge. The tri- comes from terere, grind or waste (and the origin of throw, by the way), while the -bulum is stuck on the end to signify that it was a tool. Un-freaking-believable. It’s a coincidence. It totally fits but it’s a complete coincidence. What the hell, words? What. The. Hell.



  1. Tribute really changed its meaning over the years.

  2. Good lord! How does one little word have so many roots? This is some serious etymology.

  3. Well, you know, the words are your tribulation.
    Or something.

  4. I wonder what fourteenth century rulers/ warlords would make of being compared to mobsters handling protection money.

  5. And then tribe was used for the Native Americans... Funny how words keep on evolving.


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