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shameless pleading






I have no idea how that cat got in there.

Dear Word Detective: Returning recently from a family holiday in Canada, my daughter asked, anent the man in the booth to whom I was obliged to report the quantity of whisky I had aboard, “Why is it called ‘Customs’?” I checked Oxford online, which says, tersely, that the word arises from a customary payment to a ruler when goods enter his realm. Seems like there might be a bit more to it than that? — Leslie Weatherhead.

Have you noticed that nothing is simple anymore? I pasted your question into LibreOffice (Word for people who hate Word) and it immediately didn’t like your spelling “whisky,” preferring “whiskey.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that “In modern trade usage, Scotch ‘whisky’ and Irish ‘whiskey’ are thus distinguished in spelling; ‘whisky’ is the usual spelling in Britain and ‘whiskey’ that in the U.S.,” but that entry dates back to 1924, so there’s that. Wikipedia declares that “The spelling ‘whiskey’ is common in Ireland and the United States while ‘whisky’ is used in every other whisky producing country in the world.” Whatever, I guess.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, “anent” means “about” or “regarding,” and comes from the Old English “on efen,” meaning “alongside” or “face to face.”

When “custom” first appeared in English around 1200, it meant “the common or usual practice or behavior; habit, fashion” (“It is a custom, more honored in the breach, than in the observance.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1603). English adopted “custom” from the Old French “costume” (“custom, practice, style of dress”), which was formed on the Latin “consuescere,” meaning “to become accustomed.” A “customer” (first appearing around1480) was originally someone who habitually shopped in a given store, etc. “Customer” eventually took on the informal meaning of “person one has to deal with,” giving us the “ugly customers” of noir crime films.

Fun fact: as you might have guessed from that reference to the Old French word “costume,” our modern “custom” and “costume” are, spelling aside, actually the same word. “Costume,” with its original meaning of “fashion of a given time” (eventually the more modern “appropriate dress for an occasion”), was imported into English quite a bit later (more than five centuries, in fact) than “custom,” and came to us from Italian rather than French.

Meanwhile, back at “custom,” by the mid-14th centuries the “customary” (i.e., regular, established) rents paid by feudal tenants to their lords were known as “custom.” Commodities imported to or exported from the dominion of the king or similar authority were also subject to standardized “custom” taxes or levies, and eventually the part of the Civil Service in Britain that levied those duties became known as “the Customs.” The term “customs” in the “search your luggage” sense has since come to be used, obviously, all over the world.

Incidentally, “custom” as an adjective meaning “specially made or modified to order is a fairly recent (1830) US invention. The British synonym (now less commonly heard) is “bespoke,” from “bespoken” (ordered or commissioned to be made).

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