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Divide and conquer, or, the riddle of the word “Devisen”

This is the continuation of last week’s “gleanings.” Once again, I hasten to thank our correspondents for their questions and comments and want only to say something on the matter of protocol. When I receive private letters, I refer to the writers as “our correspondents” because I cannot know whether they want to have their names bandied about in the media. In some cases I ask for their express permission to do so. But while dealing with the comments posted in the blog, I, naturally, have no such compunctions. Therefore, those whose names I withhold should not look upon my reserve as lack of respect.

Engl. device and German Devisen

I received a most interesting letter from a correspondent in Germany. It concerns the German word Devisen “foreign currency; foreign exchange.” In this sense and nearly identical form Devisen occurs in French and several other languages, though not in English. The question was how it acquired its meaning in banking. The letter contained a new explanation and showed the author’s full command of the literature, to say nothing of her mastery of English. I had never thought of the word’s development and owe my familiarity with the main works on it to her. She wondered what I think of her hypothesis. I find it worthy of attention and hope that she will publish an article on the subject in a professional journal, for example, Studia Etymologica Cracovensia. One cannot be sure that any discussion on the Internet will attract the attention of specialists; therefore, a long quote from the letter in what follows won’t go far enough.

The owner of this shield was happy to be left to his own devices.
The owner of this shield was happy to be left to his own devices.

Since this blog deals mainly with English, I decided to add a section on the history of Engl. device and devise. My information has been culled from several sources, but especially from Weekley’s An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, the book to which I always turn when a French connection, real or alleged, has to be elucidated. The origin of device ~ devise from Latin dividere or rather Medieval Latin divisare is obvious. The legal use of the verb devise “to arrange a ‘division’ of one’s property” retains, as usual in law, the word’s etymological meaning. The noun device meant “section, part, something divided.” Prominent among such “parts” were the sections on the escutcheon; hence also “emblem, distinctive mark; motto,” memorable from Longfellow’s “Excelsior” (“a banner with this strange device”). The word was borrowed into Middle English from Old French. Among its meanings over the centurie­s we also find “plan” (as in left to one’s own devices, an idiom taken over from French wholesale) and “design, figure.” Device “plan” carries the connotation of “trick,” as in artistic device, while devise presupposes a plan akin to plotting. “In this, as in other words, the modern distinction between -s- and -c- is artificial” (Weekley). Some of the recorded senses deviated considerably from “divided section, part.” Yet the leap to “foreign currency” or “promissory note” comes as a surprise.

It remains unclear whether that leap happened in France (so that German borrowed a foreign word) or in Germany, with a subsequent spread of the newfangled term to French and a few other languages. For some time there was an uneasy consensus that because a bank receives many money transfers with addresses like “to London,” “to Amsterdam,” and so on, each of them was a “section” or Devise (German Devisen is the plural of Devise). The problem is why the financial sense arose only in the early nineteenth century, and at the moment no one knows for sure. Scholars pay more attention to the ultimate source of that sense. And now I’ll turn to the letter I received. According to the writer, the modern use of Devisen goes back to

“the emblematic (or heraldic) art form known as impresa in Italy, devise in France, and device in English, and practiced all over Europe in the Renaissance and the Baroque era…. the idea was to combine a more or less gnomic adage or motto with a corresponding allegorical illustration in a witty manner. This intellectual game had five basic rules or conditioni, set forth by Paolo Giovio in his Dialogo dell’imprese militari et amorose (1555) and relayed to the French by Henri Estienne in L’art de faire devises (1645), which in turn was translated into English by Thomas Blount as The Art of Making Devises (1646). Germane to my theory on the origin of the financial term Devisen is the fifth and last of them.”

All three works are available online. Therefore, I’ll skip most of the Italian and the French texts and quote mainly Blount’s English translation, retaining his original spelling:

“And that the Motto (which is the soule of the Devise [Italian: l’anima del corpo, but Blount, as noted, used the French text: l’aime de la devise] be in a strange language, or other than that which is used in the Country [Italian has no or and says simply different from, etc.], to the end, that the intention of it bee [sic] a little removed from common capacities [Italian: perche il sentimento sia alquanto più coperto, French: un peu plus cachée au vulgaire].”

Take the time by the forelock: the rate of exchange  changes every minute.
Take the time by the forelock: the rate of exchange changes every minute.

Our correspondent’s conclusion runs as follows:

“I… believe that this rule may be at the root of the peculiar meaning ‘promissory notes issued abroad (and therefore not only in a foreign currency but also probably written in a foreign language)’, especially considering the fact that said notes were often embellished with all kinds of heraldic or pseudoheraldic paraphernalia, as many banknotes still are, and in a way indeed resemble the impreses/devises/devices of the 16th and 17th century.”

Why the rules and the terminology of that antiquated art form surfaced in German trading slang two centuries later remains a puzzle. “Possibly masonic lore played a role. After all, the freemasons were just about the only ones who continued the tradition of emblematics at that time and famously managed to perpetuate some of it in the design of the dollar bills.” I should repeat that in my unprofessional view this original reconstruction deserves informed comments from experts (wise men, as such people were called in the Middle Ages).

And now a final flourish. Thomas Blount (1618-1679) was an outstanding lexicographer. His most famous book, Glossographia; or a dictionary interpreting the hard words of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue (1650), is a joy to read because it contains so many words no one knows. He was the first dictionary maker to include citations (in doing so, he anticipated Samuel Johnson and the OED) and quite a few etymologies. In this respect he was also a pioneer. Since his time, every comprehensive English dictionary has felt it its duty to include sections on word origins, and one sometimes wishes Blount had not hit on his revolutionary idea. He had more than a passing interest in devices (in the heraldic sense), as follows from the fact that he featured two woodcuts of them in his Glossographia (note that he spelled the word with an s, thus proving Weekley right) and no other illustrations.

More “gleanings” to follow.

Image credits: (1) Armours at a door/wall of a pub(?) in Tallinn old town. Photo by Samuli Lintula. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Exchange. (c) Matthew71 via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    The mathematician George Pólya once said, “A [mathematical] method is a device you use twice.”

    There is also the interesting word point-device ‘meticulous’

  2. […] connection with the post on the word Devisen, Mr. Gavin Wraith pointed out that there is a town called Devizes in Wiltshire. He also quoted part […]

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