The Grammarphobia Blog

Pay day

Q: The “re-” prefix in “reimburse” indicates a repetition, but exactly what is being repeated? I don’t see “imbursement” in my dictionary.

A: The verb  “reimburse” is an interesting word. When you peel away the prefixes, you find a purse! But let’s put the purse aside for a moment and answer your question.

The term “imbursement” is indeed a word (a noun meaning a payment), but you won’t find it in contemporary standard dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the noun as rare and has only two citations, one from 1665 and the other from 1762.

Nevertheless, you’ll get more than 100,000 hits for “imbursement” in a Google search, though most seem to be from stuffed shirts whose mother tongue is bureaucratese.

As for “reimburse,” the prefix “re-” here means “back” or “again,” and the prefix “im-” means “in” or “into.”

Remove the first prefix and you have the rare verb “imburse,” which means to store up—literally, to put into a purse. Remove the second prefix and you have the purse.

In the 1500s, “burse” was another word for the much earlier “purse,” which had been around since Old English. And the similarity between “burse” and “purse” isn’t accidental.

English adopted “burse”—though briefly—from the French word bourse (a purse or wallet). The French got it from the medieval Latin bursa (a bag or purse), but the ultimate source was the Greek byrsa (leather, hide).

English really didn’t need “burse” since it had already acquired “purse” from the Latin bursa several centuries earlier.

But “burse” lived on in other English words: the two rarities “imburse” and “imbursement,” as well as “reimburse” and “reimbursement.” Most of them entered English in the 16th century.

How, you may wonder, did the “b” in bursa became a “p” in “purse”?

A possible influence, according to the OED, may have been the Germanic synonyms for “bag” that were spelled with “p”—pusa and posa in Old English, posi in Old Icelandic, phose in Middle High German, and so on.

Whatever the reason, here’s another spelling oddity. English kept two words—“purser” and “bursar”—that came from the same Latin word (bursarius) and have related meanings.

Finally, how did “bourse,” a French word for a purse, come to mean a stock exchange or money market in Europe and other parts of the world?

The usage, according to accounts in the OED, originated in Bruges or Antwerp, where a house in which merchants met to transact business bore the sign of a purse (or of three purses).

“Some say this was the arms of the former owners, the family Bursa or de la Bourse,” the OED adds.

London’s stock exchange was once called “the Burse,” and today the exchanges in many cities (notably Paris) are called “the Bourse.”

We’ll stop for today, since we’re getting bursitis (inflammation of a “bursa,” or synovial sac).

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