Strange as it may seem, the origin of the verb buy remains a matter of uninspiring debate, at least partly because we don’t know what this verb meant before it acquired the modern sense. To us the process of buying or purchasing contains no mystery: it refers to obtaining goods in exchange for money. However, in the remote past, people did not buy goods: they produced them for their own consumption or exchanged them for other goods. Characteristically, money and mint are words of Romance origin. Purchase is also a borrowing from Old French, and it, too, meant “to obtain, to acquire,” rather than “to buy.” In our oldest Germanic texts, gifts were often exchanged but hardly ever sold and bought. Though the corpus of Old English texts is not so small, the verb bycgan, the ancestor of buy, occurred in the extant literature only in the twelfth century (that is, with regard to Old English, very late). At that time, it meant “to redeem, to ransom.” A century later, this verb turned up with the sense “to expiate.” The sense known today is later.
In the Germanic-speaking world, only Icelandic preserved rich old native prose, and, while reading the sagas, one notices with surprise how seldom any goods are bought or sold. Money existed and was greatly valued, but no one ever “went shopping.” Silver and gold, and artifacts made of precious metals, were constantly used as gifts and as compensation for murder and other crimes, but banks, money lenders, usurers, and the many appurtenances of later economy did not exist. Yet one could buy a ship and a slave. One of the central characters in The Saga of Njal tried, at the time of famine, to buy hay and cheese from a neighbor, but this is not a typical case. Anyway, the neighbor turned down the request, and we don’t know the details of a possible bargain. In another story, the king wanted to buy a polar bear. Thus, trade was not the backbone of their economy. Curiously, a cognate of bycgan existed in Old Icelandic, but this verb, spelled byggan, meant “to buy a wife; marry” (exactly as in Hebrew: makar!) and “to lend or lease.”
In the fourth-century Gothic Bible, translated from Greek, bugjan (also used with various prefixes) occurs many times. It renders the Greek verb meaning “buy.” And with a prefix the same verb means “to sell.” The word that Bishop Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, saw in Greek is agorádzein. Now, Greek agorá meant “(a public place of) assembly; marketplace.” It occurs in Luke XIV: 18. Wulfila of course knew the meaning of the noun agorá, but it is not clear how he understood the verb. Characteristically, a verbal noun with the same root as in bugjan and a prefix, namely faur-bauhts (the variation in the vowels is regular and consonants is regular) meant “redemption” and corresponded to Greek apolútrōsis,” and we have seen that Old English bycgan also meant “to redeem.”
The oldest sense of the verb that has come down to us as Old English bycgan seems to have meant “make a bargain; redeem; obtain a wife” and had something to do with exchange. Several attempts connect buy with the Germanic verb meaning “to bend,” such as, for example, German biegen. English bow “to bend” is an exact match for biugan. The development from “bend” to “submit, bring something under one’s control” is thinkable but not too persuasive. Goods change hands, that is, “move,” as evidenced, for instance by Greek pōléō “to sell” versus pélō “to move.” The posited tie to “bending” is not unreasonable. Predictably, even those researchers who accept it are not too enthusiastic, while the more cautious dictionaries prefer to say about buy “origin undisclosed.”
The odd spelling of buy recurs in busy and build. Old English had a vowel like German ü. (That is why the oldest form was spelled bycgan.) This vowel changed differently in different Middle English dialects: it either became short i or developed into short e or short u (as heard in today’s pet and put). The modern form buy has the pronunciation of the south and the spelling of the west (one of the pleasures of our unreformed spelling).
Some other hypotheses concerning the origin of buy are either not better (perhaps from the root meaning “to enjoy,” that is, “to acquire and enjoy the use of, to own, to possess,” with a single reference to Sanskrit) or fanciful (b- is a prefix, etc.). Only one thing is probable: in the past, buy meant “to strike a bargain; to free by paying ransom” or something like it. “Bending” does not come close enough to such senses to arouse universal enthusiasm.
The verb sell exists in the same clear obscure. Its Gothic form –saljan occurs in Wulfila’s text twice, both times with a prefix (hence my hyphen), and the prefixes differ. However, it means “to offer sacrifice.” The verb has regular cognates everywhere in Germanic, but German lost it (the German for “sell” is verkaufen, related to English cheap; this word is of Latin origin). The trouble is that, as just noted, Gothic saljan meant “to sacrifice,” rather than “to get for a payment.” Obviously, for sell to mean what it does to us, people needed a system of exchanging goods for money. Words with the same root and more or less corresponding meanings exist outside Germanic: in Greek and Celtic. But s and l are not subject to the Germanic Consonant Shift, which turned non-Germanic p, t, and k into f, th, and h, so that all kinds of chance coincidences (unrelated s-l formations) are possible in this group of words. In Gothic, another saljan “to be a guest of” has also been recorded. The few attempts to reduce them to the same etymon, though ingenious, do not carry conviction.
If saljan is indeed related to Greek ‘eleîn “to take” (the initial aspiration in the Greek verb goes back to s), then Gothic saljan “to sacrifice,” which, naturally, presupposed offering, giving something, must be twisted into the sense “to be given, to receive.” This tour de force is not unthinkable, because verbs do sometimes combine opposite meanings, but in reconstructing the origin of an obscure word, the fewer assumptions we make, the better.
It is curious to observe how all our simplest commercial words originated. For example, trade is a loan from a fourteenth-century Low German dialect and meant “track, course, way.” It is related to the verb tread. Modern German Handel means simply “doings” (corresponding to the verb handeln “to operate, perform”). Merchant and merchandize are Romance loans (via Old French). Don’t forget Mercurius, the patron of merchants and, alas, thieves. Unfortunately, the etymology of the two English most basic verbs of commerce (buy and sell) remains partly undiscovered. I am sorry to say so but very much hope that our readers will buy this unsastisfactory conclusion without chagrin and complaints.