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Every British Internet financial start-up trumps the last in the silly-names game. Maybe it’s an attempt at off-beat individuality, or perhaps all the sensible names have been taken. We’ve had one e-bank called Egg (halfway sensible, suggesting nest-egg), another entitled Smile and a third delighting in the name of Marbles. And now the British bank Abbey National has announced an online service called Cahoot.

Hang on a minute, you chaps. There’s only one common expression in English which uses the word, and that’s in cahoots with, meaning that a person is in some partnership or association with another. Presumably that’s the idea the namers of the new enterprise have in mind — you and your bank looking after your money together.

But there’s a problem. Two, really. The lesser one is that the word and the phrase, originally American, are still slightly foreign to British ears and eyes. The other is that, as Jessie Sheidlower put it in one of his Jesse’s Word of the Day columns once, it almost always has “a suggestion of some questionable or nefarious purpose”, or as Jonathon Green says in his magisterial Cassell Dictionary of Slang, it usually implies “a slightly disreputable or surreptitious alliance”.

Questionable, nefarious, disreputable, surreptitious — even when qualified, these are hardly the words to associate with an enterprise, especially one concerned with safeguarding your money and mine. The reason for this cock-up on the PR front is that many British professionals, especially those in advertising and financial services, are increasingly using American terms, both standard American English and jargon, but often without fully understanding their cultural implications.

But then cahoot has always been a bit odd. It turns up first in the southern states of the USA in the 1820s, then as the single word cohoot. Dictionary-makers cannot be sure where it came from. The most popular explanation is that it derives from the Louisiana French cahute for cabin (a word that has been found in Scots, also from French), suggesting the kind of close relationship for common purposes that’s implied by shared accommodation in a hut. An alternative explanation, favoured by John Bartlett, of Bartlett’s Quotations, connects it with cohort. Either way, by the 1860s in cahoots was the usual form, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

If I had a direct line to Abbey National, I’d suggest a change of name, quick.

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Page created 26 Feb 2000