Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 5, 2016

Saccageur! On the Trail of a Word

It’s a rare week that the regular dictionary doesn’t show up at the breakfast table. We’ll be talking about something and either The Counselor or I will ask, “Where does that word come from, anyway?”

Although often tempted to offer my amateur opinion on etymology I generally manage to stop myself from uttering nonsense by invoking our household god of lexicographical restraint, the poet, translator and etymologist, John Ciardi, who for many years hosted a brief occasional feature on National Public Radio about word origins, “On Words.” Delivered in Ciardi’s gravelly baritone and lit from within by his wit and humor, those were indelibly memorable programs. One message with which Ciardi repeatedly admonished his listeners was that one should not assume it’s possible to “figure out” the origin of a word or phrase based on its resemblance to similar sounding or -looking words. He cautioned that language is an elusive, always changing medium and not subject to clear rules. Etymology requires long, painstaking research. Ciardi always took a storytelling approach in his entertaining and instructive programs to demonstrate just how difficult it is to determine word origins.

The word that came up over toast with almond butter and fresh fruit recently was “sack,” as in “to plunder a city.”

One of us wondered if perhaps the English word, “sack” — a container of cloth or paper — was related to sacking a city, as in carrying off plundered goods, (perhaps in a sack).

Heeding Mr. Ciardi’s advice, I fetched the dictionary rather than hazarding a guess.

There are three meanings for the English word, “sack:” 1. n. a bag for holding objects, 2. v. to rob of goods, 3. n. a dry, light wine from the Canary Islands or Spain.

We’re primarily interested here in whether the first two words, identical in English, are truly the same word, and directly related.

Fortunately, the American Heritage Dictionary provides a historical gloss.

More than 4,000 years ago, there was a word, saqqu, in Akkadian — a now-extinct Semitic language, part of the Afro-Asiatic language family, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. Saqqu meant the same thing as our English word #1: a bag. Ancient Hebrew, a related language, had śaq, almost literally our modern word, although both Akkadian and Hebrew belonged to a language family unrelated to the Indo-European language family of which English is a part. How did we get it? Those ambitious traders, the Phoenicians, speakers of another now-defunct Semitic language, also had the word and, in trading with ancient Greece, passed it along. The Greeks, in turn, loaned it to the Romans, those avid acquirers of everything they could take in the process of conquering the world, and it became saccus in Latin, with the same meaning, a bag.

As the Romans conquered various Germanic tribes, it became sakkiz in ancient Germanic and thence it came into Old English as sacc. That’s the word we still have today, a thousand years later, pronounced more or less the way the Aelfrics, Ethelreds and Alfreds of an ancient day said it in Old English.

Now, as for sack, as in plunder.

In Old French, between about 800 and 1300 A.D., there was a phrase, mettre à sac, “to put in a sack,” which was applied to pillaging and plundering. That French sac derived from the same Latin word, saccus. During that time, of course, French-speaking people whipped the English at Hastings and elsewhere (1066 and all that), took over running Britain, and introduced countless French words into English. Old English already had a perfectly good word, sacc, and with the casualness that’s a hallmark of English usage, the Britons simply made “sack” a verb in addition to the noun sense, #1. (This sort of nonchalance about English drives the French crazy.)

So. Both meanings 1. and 2. derive from the same Akkadian-to-Phoenician-to-Greek-to-Latin ancestry, but entered English separately.

The answer to that breakfast table question, then is, “sort of.” They’re the same word, but they arrived individually, probably several centuries apart. We speakers of English excel at this sort of appropriation of words, as did the Romans.

There are, though, some things French simply does with more panache than does English. For us, someone who sacks is probably a plunderer, or, somewhat archaically, a reaver. The French, though, have a most excellent word, derived from the same root as sacsaccageur, one who plunders.

Imagine the heroine in some melodramatic film version of a 9th-Century Viking raid on coastal France, screaming at the horde plundering, pillaging and burning her village:


Much greater elan than, “You plunderers!” and far better than, “You sackers!” Let’s give the French their due.

N.B. That primordial word for sack was an extremely useful import from the Semitic languages. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it also made its way from Greek or Latin into Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian and Albanian.

What, you may ask, about meaning #3?

A dry, white wine from the Canary Islands and Spain began arriving in England (now back to speaking English, having tired of French rule and rich, creamy sauces) in the 16th and 17th Centuries, via France, where it was referred to as vin sec, “dry wine.” That sec came from Latin siccus, “dry.” You may be familiar with the related words seco in Spanish or secco in Italian, also from Latin siccus.

But, heck, English already had good ol’ “sack,” and we used it again to describe the wine. 

N.B2. For lexicography and etymology fans, there’s to be a motion picture version of The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. It tells the story of the man who contributed more than 10,000 citations to the compilation of the OED, headed by principal editor, Augustus Henry Murray. That contributor, William Chester Minor, was an American, incarcerated in a British insane asylum for murder. Sean Penn will play Minor. Who will play the deeply revered, scholarly Murray? Mel Gibson. No, I’m not kidding. HERE is the story in the Hollywood Reporter. [UPDATE, September 2017: Film on hold. Big disagreements among “cooperating” production companies, who aren’t cooperating. Business as usual in the film capital of the world.]

As Mr. Ciardi would bid us at the end of each program, “Good words to you.” I miss that guy.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. Etymology from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, © 2000 Houghton Mifflin Company.


  1. How about these two: (1) we sometimes hear the Brits say that an official has been “sacked” (removed) 😩; (2) in American football a quarterback is “sacked” if tackled behind the line of scrimmage when attempting to pass 🏈.


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