bankrupt (adj.)

Current events in the world make it seem appropriate to include this weeks word into the series. Especially since its interesting history reveals quite a bit about how bankers whose businesses failed were dealt with in the past.

Most dictionaries trace it back to Renaissance Italy where Florentine moneylenders conducted their business across a cloth-covered desk or bench – banca. Whenever one of them became insolvent (or went belly-up as a more modern and informal metaphoric expression has it) his banca was literally broken to pieces, shattered. His desk was turned into a banca rotta, a broken bench.

Having your counter broken was a public announcement of your inability to pay your creditors. It was a symbolic act with an absolute finality about it. It was a disgrace that meant you could not simply set up your stall at another market and start over.

That was the past. Today, if your banca was rotta you would in all probability ring up your government and say “Hello there, dear government, I am bankrupt. You must help or the whole economy will collapse.” And today’s governments will buy all the worthless broken benches that no one wants. They will give the old corrupt bankers new money so they can buy new benches.

I am not naïve. But in some ways the olden days’ readiness with axes and saws seems more satisfying.

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