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Pronounced /bæn/Help with pronunciation

The House of Commons, the lower house of the British Parliament, last week voted by a large majority to ban the hunting of wild animals with dogs, which includes fox-hunting, though it’s unlikely that this will lead soon to a change in the law. Ban is a useful journalistic dagger, short and pointed, invaluable in headlines. But its application in this sense is surprisingly recent. Only from the middle of last century has it commonly been taken to mean the proscribing or prohibition of some activity.

Its origins lie in an old Germanic word meaning ‘to summon; proclaim’, which influenced English via Old Norse and then again later through Latin via French (very distantly, it is also the source of our fame and phase). In early times it frequently meant a call to arms, but it also commonly referred to the public proclamation that a couple proposed to marry, a word which is now written in the plural as banns. Sometimes such proclamations were issued to formally excommunicate someone or to outlaw them, hence our word banish.

The same root moved via Latin into Italian and gave rise to bandito, a person who has been outlawed, which is the direct origin of our bandit (at first used in the plural to mean a gang of outlaws, leading some writers to think it came from band). Also coined in Italian was contrabanda, which literally meant something done in defiance of a proclamation, hence an unlawful act. It came to mean specifically “dealing in prohibited goods; smuggling” sometime during its journey to us through Spanish. There was a lot of smuggling by the English with the Spanish possessions in the Americas in the years around 1600 and the word seems to have been picked up around that time along with the illicit goods. Once naturalised in English in the form contraband it started to refer to the smuggled goods themselves.

In French, the now-obsolete word bandon had been derived from ban with the sense of “control; jurisdiction” (that is, those persons who are required to submit to a ban); from this arose mettre à bandon, to put a person under the jurisdiction of someone else, hence in English to abandon him.

The adjective from ban is banal. In French its initial sense related directly to the call to arms, specifically to the requirement that all young men should serve a period in the army. In English, it first meant any compulsory feudal service required by proclamation (for example, the common requirement that tenants should take their corn to be ground at the manor mill was called bannal-mill). From these beginnings, in both French and English it took on the broader sense of something that was open to or imposed upon the whole community, from which comes our modern sense of “commonplace; ordinary”. As with ban, this sense is only recorded from the 1830s onwards.

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Page created 17 Jan 1998