Dear Word Detective: My boss keeps telling me that the word “tax” comes from a European king. The king controlled a road that was traveled by merchants. If someone wanted to travel this road, they had to pay King Tax (or some name close to that) for the privilege of traveling on this section of road unharmed. Is this true? — Gerald Barnes.
Well, there you go. I’ve always said that if space aliens decided to invade and destroy our civilization (or what’s left of it), the best way to do it would be to weasel their way into middle management and drive their underlings mad by forcing them to listen to this kind of nonsense. I once had to suffer through several days of mandatory computer training at a job back in the days when Pentium processors were the new hot thing. The supervisor conducting the class insisted on calling it a “Penta,” and even made up some absurd tale about it being five times faster than the old chips. To this day the word “Pentium” makes me flinch.
There have, of course, been scads of monarchs and other rulers down through the ages who levied tolls on roads under their control. Our modern word “turnpike” pays tribute to the days when toll stations actually blocked the road with a long pole (“pike”) until the fee was paid. But none of this has anything to do with the word “tax.”
Our modern verb “to tax” comes to us from the Old French “taxer,” which was based on the Latin “taxare,” meaning “to value or make a valuation of” something, and only secondarily “to charge.” That Latin “taxare” was probably derived in turn from the verb “tangere,” which means “to touch” and has also given us such words as “tangible” and “contact.” Old French also had the word “tasche,” meaning “duty,” formed from “taxa,” a derivative of our friend “taxare.” This branch of the family tree eventually produced our modern English “task.”
Given this ancestry, it’s not surprising that “tax” has carried heavy overtones of compulsion and onerous duty ever since it appeared in English in the 13th century. Apart from the common meaning of “to assess, impose and collect” a levy, we use “tax” as a verb to mean “to burden or put a strain on” something or someone (as in “Working in customer service taxed Bob’s patience to the breaking point”). And since the 16th century, we have also used “tax” to mean “to accuse, charge or blame” a person (“I have been to blame; And you have justly taxed my long neglect,” Dryden, 1692).