Taxing Terms

In the United States, today is the day when tax returns and payments are due to the Internal Revenue Service. It is "tax day." The verb to tax appears in English usage as early as ca.1290. The word comes from the Old French taxe, which is after the Latin taxare. The noun tax appears in English sometime before 1327.

Internal revenue is the term used in the United States for taxes collected domestically, as opposed to custom duties levied on imports. The term dates to 1862, when the first Commissioner of Internal Revenue was appointed to collect income taxes to fund the U.S. Civil War. This first U.S. income tax was a wartime measure and was repealed in 1872. The income tax was re-imposed in 1894, but was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court the following year. It wasn’t until the passage of the 16th amendment in 1913 that explicitly permitted an income tax was the tax permanently instituted. In the United Kingdom, the corresponding term is inland revenue, a term that dates to 1849.

But taxes are much older than this and the oldest English word for a tax is toll. It is an Old English word, dating to ca. 1000. The word has always meant a payment or tax, although now it is primarily used to refer to a payment required for passage on a road or a charge for making a telephone call. Compare it to the German word Zoll, which is from the same Germanic root and has a similar meaning.

A relatively newer word for tax is duty. It dates to 1297 and comes from the Anglo Norman dueté, a word not found in continental French. The word originally meant an act of submission or reverence, but by ca.1386 it was being applied to payments that were owed to someone else. By 1474, duty was being used to mean a tax. Now it is used primarily to refer to a tax on imports, a customs duty.

The word custom originally meant a habitual action or usual practice, a sense that survives today. Dating to ca.1200, it is from the Old French custume. The sense meaning a tax levied on goods being brought to market is from ca.1400. This sense is a bit older in Latin, dating to 1325. The use of customs to refer to the area in a port or airport where goods are inspected and taxes levied is quite recent, only dating to 1921.

Another specialized form of taxation is a tithe. The word dates to ca.1200 and is a tax levied by the church. This is another tax word that is traced back to Old English, to the word teogotha, a tenth. The tax traditionally levied by the Christian church is a tenth of one’s goods. The idea of a tax to support the church has its roots in Mosaic law, which required all the people of Israel to support the priestly tribe of Levi.

Another tax word, probably less familiar to most than the preceding, is excise. This word, like many in English, is from an Old French root, but unlike most such terms does not come to us via the Normans. Instead, English gets the word via the Middle Dutch excijs. Ultimately, the word is from the Latin verb accensare, to tax. An excise is a tax levied during production or at the point of sale, most commonly a sales or value-added tax. The word appears in English in 1494, meaning simply a tax of any kind. The more specific, modern sense appears in 1596 in reference to excise taxes in Holland and by 1642 England was levying excise taxes as well.

Excise taxes are usually applied ad valorem, a Latin term meaning according to value. English use of this Latin phrase is from 1711.

Also less familiar is an impost, a word meaning simply a tax of some sort. The word dates to 1568 and is from the Old French. Ultimately, it is from the Latin imponere, to impose.

As we have seen, taxes have been with us a long time and will certainly be with well past our lifetimes. But you can take heart in the idea that not all types of taxes survive.

Scutage is a form of taxation that is no longer levied. Scutage is money paid in lieu of military service. The word dates to ca.1460 and is from the Latin scutum, or shield

Another is tallage, a word that dates to ca.1290. It is a tax on feudal dependents and is from Old French taillage. The word tail has a meaning of a cut, partition, or assessment and this is where the idea of a tax comes in, a count or assessment of the population.

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