“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
That was the phrase in a tweet sent on May 28 from the @realDonaldTrump account—and retweeted by the official White House account—that caused Twitter to append a notice of rule violation: “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible” (capitalization sic). If you want to see the original tweet, you need to click “View.” Replies to the tweet are hidden.
Twitter’s action provoked a lively discussion of First Amendment protections (which don’t apply to private companies, even publicly traded ones) and the source of the rhyming threat (a statement in 1967 by Miami’s chief of police, about which the president claimed ignorance—possibly because a staffer with greater historical knowledge had suggested the line).
But historian Peter A. Shulman had something else on his mind.
Curious about the once again omni-present word "looter," I looked up the etymology.— Peter A. Shulman (@pashulman) May 29, 2020
I was.. surprised!
Without looking, where does the word come from?
My own reasoning went like this:
- Old English? Possibly related to hlot—“an object used to determine someone’s share”—which became Modern English lot.
- Old Norse? Because Vikings.
- Dutch? English has lots of double-O borrowings from that language, including boom, booze, galoot, caboose, and sloop, not to mention the criminally adjacent bootleg and freebooter.
- Related to lout (a boor, an oafish fellow), a noun of uncertain origin that first appeared in English in the 1540s?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong again.
For starters, loot—a noun meaning “plunder” or “property taken from an enemy in war” and a verb meaning “to steal, especially during a war or riot”—is a modern arrival in English: It first appeared in print in 1839. And it was borrowed not from another European language but from Hindi word lut (“stolen property”). That makes it a Hobson-Jobsonism: an Anglo-Indian borrowing like bungalow, pajamas (or pyjamas), veranda, shampoo, and thug (which, capitalized for emphasis, also appears in the Trump tweet).
Loot caught on quickly among speakers of English. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French forces destroyed the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. After they’d ransacked the palace’s contents, they burned the building. A British captain found a Pekinese dog near the wreckage and brought it back to England, where he presented it to Queen Victoria. She named the dog “Looty.” (Thanks to Adam Foulds for that tidbit.)
“Looty,” oil painting by Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl (1861). Royal Collection Trust
I found more than 100 live “Loot” trademarks in the US Patent and Trademark Office database. Unsurprisingly, many of them have been registered by companies that make slot-machine-type games: Lucky Loot, King’s Loot, Return to Planet Loot. Super Hoot Loot, and Mega Loot are all registered to different entities.
A trademark for the LotsaLoot Jackpot “microgaming” program was registered in 2002 to Casino Listings.
LOOT is an acronym for Load Order Optimisation Tool, a program for game developers.
Lootsie made news in 2015 as one of several startups that allowed developers to add reward programs to their games and other apps, It appears to have gone under. Lootsie.com is now a site that claims “to share personal finance information all the way to enterprise solutions to help you make educated, sound business/wealth related decisions.”
Original Lootsie logo. See more cutesy names on my Pinterest board.
When you call your antique store Loot, you could be signaling that your goods are “a steal”—irresistibly well priced.
Loot on College Avenue in Oakland, once full of plunder, sadly went under.
Further reading: The original Hobson-Jobson dictionary is available online.