English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Changing times

Q: Can you help me understand what ’Change means in this sentence from a short story I’m reading: “The tears just flowed like thawing snow; as they do in nature, though less often on ’Change.” The apostrophe and capital letter seem to be very confusing here. The author was an Englishman.

A: In Britain, the term “change” or “Change” has referred to a money exchange, a stock exchange, or a commercial exchange for hundreds of years, though the usage isn’t seen much now. In the late 18th century, an apostrophe was added in the mistaken belief that “Change” was short for “Exchange.”

In the sentence you’re asking about, the word apparently refers to a stock exchange. It’s from “The Fetch,” a story by Robert Aickman from his collection Intrusions: Strange Tales (1980).

The narrator, a merchant banker in London, uses it in describing the tears shed by his new wife’s maid, who has discovered that the banker’s ancestral home in Scotland is haunted.

The noun “change” was first used in the Middle Ages to mean a place for bartering or money-changing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It had this sense for centuries before “exchange” came to mean the same thing and eventually replaced it. Here’s the story.

In the business sense, a “change” was originally “a place for the conversion of money or bullion,” and “a place where merchants or bankers transact business,” the OED says. Those meanings today are obsolete or historical, the dictionary adds.

The word in these senses can be traced to a verb in post-classical Latin, cambiare, which in the 8th century meant “to exchange, to give in exchange, to obtain by exchange” and in the 11th century meant “to change money,” the dictionary says. From medieval Latin, the usage passed into Old French, Anglo-Norman, and finally into English.

Around the year 1200, Oxford explains, chaunge in Anglo-Norman was used “with reference to a money changer’s table,” and toward the end of the 1200s or perhaps earlier, “La Chaunge” was used “as the name of such a place in London.”

Early English uses in the dictionary include “Le Eldechaunge” (1317) and “Le Oldechaunge” (1389), meaning “the Old Change.” (This in fact was the name of a lane in London where such business was conducted in those days. Similarly, in the 18th century, “Change Alley” was a street in the City of London where many stockbrokers did business at coffee houses.)

So “change” long preceded “exchange” as a noun for a place of trade. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that an “exchange” came to mean a money-changer’s office or “a building in which the merchants of a town assemble for the transaction of business,” the OED says.

The word acquired an official stamp when the capitalized noun “Exchange” came to mean the Royal Exchange, a commercial center in the City of London where merchants traded goods.

The building, modeled on the Antwerp Bourse, was constructed in 1566 and originally called the “Burse,” but in 1571 Queen Elizabeth gave it the title “Royal Exchange.”

The OED’s earliest written use of “Exchange” as short for “Royal Exchange” dates from 1589, but no doubt merchants used it in speech much earlier.

Beginning in the late 17th century, according to OED citations, the phrase “upon Change” (later “on Change”) was used to mean “at the Royal Exchange” or “on the stock exchange.”

In the early 1800s, the apostrophe crept in. As Oxford explains, the shorter word has been “often apprehended since the 19th cent. as a shortening (with elision of the initial syllable) of exchange … and hence frequently spelt ’change.”

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a Nov. 23, 1821, entry in the English journalist William Cobbett’s diary of his travels through rural England:

“Young wives standing in need of something to keep down the unruly ebullitions which are apt to take place while the ‘dearies’ are gone hobbling to ’Change.” (Cobbett’s travel diary was first published in serial form from 1822 to 1826 in Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, and as a book, Rural Rides, in 1830.)

Henry W. Fowler, in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, notes that “Change” is “not an abbreviation of Exchange, & should have no apostrophe.” Sir Ernest Gowers repeated that in the 1965 second edition. However, the usage was so rare by the late 20th century that R. W. Burchfield dropped the entry in his revised 1998 third edition.

The example you came across in that 1980 short story is unusual. In searches of newspaper databases, we’ve found plenty of examples from the 19th century, but very few from the 20th later than the 1930s. Today the usage is found mainly in historical writing, as is the case with this OED citation:

“He knew he could make money on ’Change—he had demonstrated that over the last few years.” (From Norman B. Ream, a 2013 biography of a 19th-century businessman, by Paul Ryscavage.)

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