Tare

And watch your toes.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word “tare,” as in “tare weight” of a container?  Where did the word come from? — David Stepien.

That’s a good question.  I first encountered “tare” years ago when I worked in a warehouse recycling newspapers, where we used an enormous scale built into the floor to weigh big steel baskets of paper.  Obviously it was important to first set the “tare” on the scale to the weight of  an empty basket or you’d be several hundred pounds off.  Incidentally, I have some free advice for anyone who finds themselves in such a job.  Learn to drive the forklift.  It’s fun (a lot like playing pinball, in fact) and most of the time you get to work sitting down.

There are actually two “tares” in English, completely unrelated in either origin or meaning.  The older “tare,” which appeared in the 14th century, means the seed of a “vetch,” a large family of flowering plants that includes the fava bean.  In its original use, this “tare” meant “something very small” (especially something unwanted, like a vetch seed mixed in with seed corn).  “Tare” today is usually used to mean a particular species of vetch plant (“Vicia sativa”), which is grown as fodder for livestock.  The origin of this “tare” is something of a mystery, but similar (and possibly related) words exist in several other European languages.

“Tare” in the more common sense of “the weight of a container that is deducted from the gross weight to obtain the net weight” has a more interesting origin (although, granted, almost anything would be more interesting than “We don’t know”).  This “tare” first appeared in English in the late 15th century, borrowed directly from French.  Interestingly, however, “tare” in French at that time didn’t mean “weight of the container” and so on.  It meant “waste or deterioration in goods” or “deficiency or imperfection,” as in, for example, the percentage of a shipment of corn that was spoiled by rot or pests.

This sense of “tare” in French meaning “waste” was also found in Portuguese, Spanish and Italian (where the form was “tara”), all of which were based in the Arabic “tarah,” which means “that which is thrown away” (from “tarahah,” to reject).  The Arabic word had been picked up and adopted by European merchants in the course of trade with North Africa.  Apparently the sense of “waste” or “spoiled goods” was carried over into most of these languages, but by the time “tare” entered English it had become simply a way of specifying the actual weight of a shipment minus whatever container carried it.  “Tare” is still used this way, whether the container is a cargo ship, a trailer truck, or, at least implicitly, a box of cornflakes that species its “net weight” on its front.

2 comments on this post.
  1. Marc Naimark:

    “Tare” today has both meanings: the weight of the container, which is deducted from the reading on the scale, and a defect. What gives?

  2. John:

    With the cultivation of wheat came the incidental cultivation of Rye, darnell, or Tare. Rye is virtually indistinguishable from wheat except that the grain is much much smaller and far more susceptible to a specific hallugenic and potentially toxic fungus. Hence the seed head is often referred to a empty but in truth the Rye grain is separated from that of the wheat by chafing (tossing into the wind for the light Rye grain to b thrown away) and by sieves. Hence Tare of at least biblical times and probably earlier meant, empty ones, to be separated and defective. There’s a specific parable which uses tare being seeded amongst a field of wheat as an analogy. I suspect that both the use of tare to reference certain seeds and for trade in the sense of rejection/spoiled and waster comes from this problem of Rye with the cultivation of wheat so in essence the two tares are one.

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