The British Inland Revenue is to mount an exhibition next year about the income tax. It will mark the two hundredth anniversary of its imposition by William Pitt’s administration as a temporary measure to help pay for the war with France. There has been a tendency in the British press to treat this act of commemoration with more levity than it deserves. Such a profoundly significant cultural landmark surely deserves no less.
Taxes are as old as civilisation, but our word tax is less old than you might think: it first appeared only in the fourteenth century. In its first meaning, it was nearer the Latin original taxare, which meant to assess or appraise; so taxation was at first about the process of deciding how much you were due to pay rather than the sum of money itself. That sense survives in the taxation officer of the courts who assesses whether the fees charged by barristers are fair and accurate.
Before the word tax was available, the English used the closely related word task, which is recorded in the twelfth century with the same meaning. What seems to have happened is that the Latin taxare turned into taxer in Old French, whose letters then shifted about through a process called metathesis to become the English word task, in much the same way that the Old English brid became bird, and patron turned into pattern.
By the fourteenth century, we had both task and tax in the language, and a useful division had appeared in which the first related to some imposition involving work or labour, the second a payment in money. Both retain these meanings, though task has weakened somewhat to refer to anything which has to be done, not necessarily something involving physical effort. But tax still has its original sense, though it has spawned the common figurative meaning of an intangible imposition — something that is strenuous, wearing, exacting or challenging.
One of the curiosities of the English revenue system is that we’ve been reluctant actually to call a tax a tax. Most of the measures to raise funds for the treasury were named duties. Duty started out with a sense of some mark of respect that was due to a superior, but quickly took on the additional meaning of a mark of respect which was paid in hard cash, of something which you owed to someone else. This reflects its Latin original debere, a compound meaning “to keep in one’s possession something that belongs to somebody else” (it’s also the direct ancestor of our debt).