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I find it quite delightful that the Oxford English Dictionary has as its first two citations for the word loot entries that relate not only to the word itself, but to men who appear to have been pretty sophisticated looters.
The first citation is from 1788 and a book called Indian Vocabulary.
This gives you a pretty hot clue as to the etymology of the word loot—it’s from Hindi and Sanskrit.
The reason English book buyers were interested in the vocabulary of India was that India represented a growing source of national wealth for England and news from India was hard to follow if you didn’t understand the jargon.
The publisher of the book went further though.
Since improving your vocabulary hasn’t always proven to be motivation enough for buying a book, the full title of the thing was Indian vocabulary: to which is prefixed the Forms of Impeachment.
If this seems to you no better as far as marketing a book by its title is concerned that’s because you don’t know about the scandal out of India at the time.
This book was trading not only on self improvement through vocabulary, but on the titillation of scandal through the recent impeachment of Warren Hastings the Governor General of Bengal.
Hastings wasn’t a looter in the sense that he smashed windows and grabbed valuables, but he appears to have amassed a considerable estate in Calcutta while disregarding the trifling details of governing.
I should say though that he was later acquitted.
The second OED citation is from 1839 and reads
“He always found the talismanic gathering-word Loot…a sufficient bond of union in any part of India.”
I found that an intriguing sentence.
Who found the word loot a bond of union?
This sounds like the stuff of Indiana Jones movies.
Well it turns out that it was a guy named Amir Khan. For much of his life Amir Khan was the head of a sort of tribal army in India except it was made up of quite a mix of tribes.
He was constantly brokering deals where he’d get paid to attack one area or get paid more not to; or he’d establish alliances with one faction or another depending on the profit margin involved.
It was when asked how he kept his mix of followers onside that he called loot a talismanic gathering-word.
He figured sharing the spoils kept everyone faithful. And it worked for him with the British too.
Eventually the British got tired of his disruptive plundering activities and managed to turn some of his allies into enemies. Once it seemed more profitable to fight for the British than against them Amir Khan himself became an ally.
As England continued to extract loot from India Amir Khan was able to keep his cut and was thereafter regarded by the English administration as a model of local leadership.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.