What’s in a (violent) name? The words chiefly used in the newspapers to describe the wave of lawlessness that surged through London and some other parts of England this summer were riot and loot or variations thereof—most likely because an ideal major headline word is four letters or less—yet neither is accurate. Loot looks as if it might be Anglo-Saxon, but as a noun for stolen goods it was thieved from Hindi in the late 18th century and turned into a verb about 1840—strictly attached, however, to gains ill-gotten in war. And though riot as a synonym for “mob disturbance” originated in the late Middle Ages, many know it almost better through its older connotation—extravagant, luxuriant, profuse—through the phrase “riotous living.”
Plunder is a better verb, borrowed from German during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, then adopted for the seizure of household goods by force throughout England’s Civil War. Sack, from the French order to mercenaries to stuff what they could grab in a sac, a bag, is apposite, while pillage and spoil, it turns out, are both rooted in the action of skinning an animal.
Robbing, thieving and stealing
Some of the 3,296 crimes committed in England, in the 100 hours between an initial non-confrontation outside Tottenham police station in early August and the mobilization four nights later of 16,000 officers to lock down London, were robbery, a word that long ago produced the noun robe, meaning a (plundered) long garment. The charge sheets of magistrates’ courts during the week following confined their accusations to theft (thief comes from the language of the Goths, with the connotation of stealing by sly movement or crouching down—not a Gothic habit) or burglary—illegal entry in order to steal, the word derived from the breach of a fortress, a burgh—and the handling of stolen goods. (Steal is also a Gothic contribution, with the carrying off and hiding of goods implied: Goths must have been sneakier than history usually relates.)
Britons are used to personal robbery by single footpads (a 17th-century coinage for a highwayman who couldn’t afford a horse) because it has been relatively common for decades, but not many had previously seen, on television and the web, physical assaults on premises. Yet the scenes shown of affray (a word that shares its past with afraid, medievally coevals for a state of alarm in response to sudden non-peace) were unspectacular.
Even the high level of kinetic energy applied by four or five youths assailing (assail, from the Latin, “to leap at”) with feet and scaffolding poles a metal grille, designed only to stop chucked bricks, made for dreary viewing compared with the habitual fictional mayhem (the word was once a variant of maim) that explodes into shards and CGI fireballs on telly, computer screen and Xbox. An apprentice later confessed to police that he went on the expedition because he “felt up for it to cause havoc” (from cry havoc, a military order to pillage in the Anglo-French Hundred Years’ War, which soon escalated to mean devastation).”
To my surprise, all but one of the words cited in this story of social disorder made it through to publication in an international magazine in which most pieces are translated into English, usually from French. The sole casualty was reiver, a word from the Scottish borders meaning raider, usually of cattle, related to rover (sea-rover was a medieval term for a pirate), from the Dutch roven—which means to rob, both being from the same proto-Germanic original meaning “to break or snatch away” that also gave us the “reave” in bereave and the “reft” in bereft. Reivers was printed as receivers—not such an active form of lawlessness.
This article is excerpted from a longer piece originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique.