Friday 31 January 2020

The Taxman and the Farmer

Today I have been paying the farmer. Because farmers aren't farmers, they're tax-gatherers.

Some people have trade surnames: Mr Baker, Mr Butcher, Mr Farmer etc. And these people happily imagine that in some way off medieval time they had an ancestor who was a baker or a butcher or a farmer. The first two are right, but the Farmers are wrong. Because a farmer is a taxman. Or was.

The name has nothing to do with farms.

Once upon a time, there was the Medieval Latin word firma, which meant a fixed [payment]. (It's related in this to firm, firmament, affirm etc). From this you got the Old French fermier and the English farmer all meaning tax collector, or one who collects a fixed payment.

So Chaucer wrote (with his mind on the taxman):

Him ought not be... cruel As is a farmer to do the harm he can.

This meaning of farmer actually survived all the way to the C19th, although by that time it had become rather odd.

But, feudally, rich landowners used to collect taxes on the land they owned, and they would have middle-men who were responsible for collecting the tax from a particular area. These tax farmers were responsible for a single farm from a single piece of land. They often had responsibility for making sure that it was cultivated its most profitable extent. Often they lived there as a tenant farmer.

People these days buy time-share apartments, which are often just referred to as time-shares. In the same way, the method of payment slowly came to be associated with the activity of agriculture. So the old words husbandman and churl were slowly replaced. And by the late C16th, farmer had become the standard word for somebody who simply owned a farm.

But the surname dates from the C13th. And that's why I've been paying the farmer.

P.S. Terra Firma is not, I'm afraid, related. It was originally the Venetian holding on the mainland.

P.P.S. This is a repost from 2015.


  1. Damn! Terra firma would have been a nice fit: earth payment / land tax... 'Etyymology' is not logical nor respectful of neat patterns.

  2. Well, "Terra Firma" is Latin for "fixed land", fixed in that it's supposed to stand still (as opposed to the sea, which moves faster). So it *is* related.