If you ever feel bad about money, well, you should—at least as far as its etymology is concerned. Debt, unmet obligations, war, bloodshed, and sin have been woven into our ideas about money since the very beginning.
In an essay on the historical origins of money, Cambridge monetary sociologist Geoffrey Ingham makes this observation:
In all Indo-European languages, words for “debt” are synonymous with those for “sin” or “guilt”, illustrating the links between religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by “money.” For example there is a connection between money (German Geld), indemnity or sacrifice (Old English Geild), tax (Gothic Gild) and, of course, guilt.
Ingham elaborates that that the word geld is said to have originated from the word vergeltung, indicating retribution, revenge, even blood reprisals. And he suggests the roots of what we call “money” may be found in the Germanic custom of wergeld—worth payments—a system of financial exchanges that premarket societies used to compensate for injuries and offenses. This innovative development allowed society to avoid long, costly blood feuds.
And, by the way, you don’t have to look too far to see evidence of these linguistic connections between debt, obligation, and guilt—or, at least, gilt. Among the bond market cognoscenti, British government bonds—obligations backed by the full faith and credit of the United Kingdom—are known simply as gilts, a reference to the golden-edged certificates once issued by the Bank of England.