Chapter 14: Price and Wages


When studied in their most ancient uses and referred to their Indo-European origin, the words for wages—in particular Gr. misthós, Got. laun (German Lohn)—show that before designating the “price for some piece of work,” they signified “reward for a brilliant exploit,” “prize in a competition.” As for Lat. merces, which also does not signify “wage” in the modern sense, its connection with merx ‘merchandise’ reveals the introduction of money into relations between men for the purchase of services just like merchandise.


Among the terms which denote relations of exchange we must include that for “wages,” all the more so because, here at least, we have a well-attested Indo-European correspondence and a clear meaning.
It concerns a group of words of which the representatives are Gr. misthós (μισθός), Skt. mīḍha-, Av. mižda, Got. mizdo, Old Slavic mizda, i.e. a term common to Indo-Iranian, Greek, Germanic and Slavic. The constancy of the forms is remarkable, as is that of the sense. There is merely a slight difference between the words cited and this at first sight throws little light on the genesis of the sense “wage.”
All the same it will be useful to study this set of correspondences a little more attentively to try and better define the notion. The form, in itself, does not permit analysis. We have here a derivative, the basis of which is not apparent. If it is a verbal root, we are not in a position to elicit it; we have no means of identifying it. It is, therefore, an isolated noun (the sole connection is that of Ved. mīḍha- with mīḍhvas- ‘generous’), which nevertheless belongs to the most ancient vocabulary.
The Vedic term mīḍha- does not properly signify “wage,” but “competition.” The Avestan facts must be considered here. Mižda- is attested several times, notably in the Gāthās, and it is governed by the verb han- (this is constant), the Sanskrit correspondent of which is san-, the strict sense being “gain.” If we study the uses of han- with mižda, we see that what is concerned is not a wage paid for a piece of work but a recompense—material or otherwise—in exchange for some activity, especially one performed in the service of the faith. It should not cause surprise that the term should have this limitation of sense: the Gāthās of the Avesta are a poetic and theological text, a series of vehement pronouncements in favor of the Zoroastrian faith. All the pregnant terms are charged with a religious value.
It is always by some piece of work or some meritorious action in the service of the faith that one gains the mižda. But at least on one occasion this recompense assumes a concrete aspect, Yasna 44, 18: “grant us the mižda which you have promised us, to wit, ten mares provided with stallions and one camel.” This is the only time that a material compensation is mentioned. In all other examples, it is of a spiritual order: felicity, recompense in the future life. It is worth noting that we have a parallel use of Gr. misthós in the Gospels. This is due to the identity of the initial conditions: it is the future Kingdom—“the desirable Kingdom,” to use the Avestan terminology—which has primacy in the Zoroastrian gospel. The mižda is to be found in this kingdom and in the promised felicity.
In comparing Vedic and Avestan terms, we see a more precise signification emerging, with a quite different orientation from what might be expected. This is not concerned with some advantage of an economic character, nor of a regular remuneration, nor again with a wage for an ordinary piece of work, but rather with a recompense— material or otherwise—awarded to the one who emerges victorious from a struggle or a competition. This makes it plausible that, within Vedic, mīḍha- is related to mīḍhvas- ‘generous’.
It is the Greek term which is most abundantly represented. Gr. misthós has effectively the signification of “wage,” in the sense as we understand it, from the Homeric texts on. The examples are clear: in Il. 21, 445, Poseidon reminds Priam that he has worked for him misthō̂i epì rētô̄i, μισθῷ ἐπί ῥητῷ ‘for a stipulated wage’; here we have certainly the meaning “remuneration.”
What was this remuneration? In a passage of the Odyssey (18, 358ff) a man who works for a misthós tells us what he earns: his daily corn, his clothes and shoes; such is the misthós of an employee. We learn that there were often protests if the hired man did not receive his wage or if he only received part of it.
However, there are examples in which the sense “wage” does not fit, where the use of misthós suggests a probably much older sense: in Il. 10, 304, a volunteer is sought in the Trojan camp to carry out a dangerous task of reconnoitering among the Achaeans and he is promised a great recompense: δώρῳ ἐπὶ μεγάλῳ; μισθὸς δέ οἱ ἄρκιος ἔσται ‘and he will have an assured misthós’: a chariot and two beautiful horses.
The position of the man who receives this misthós is quite different from one who receives a wage. He will have accomplished some exploit, and the misthós is the reward promised for this exploit. Here we come closer to the signification which is suggested by the Indo-Iranian terms; the misthós is no regular payment but the prize gained by the victor in a competition, the hero of a hazardous exploit.
We have yet another of these interpretations, one which we must spend some time on, because it has not yet been noticed. A compound verb is made from misthós to express the notion “to earn a wage”: this is mistharneîn (μισθαρνεῖν) ‘to work for a wage, to be a wage earner’. The verb árnumai (ἄρνυμαι) can be recognized in this compound, and this has clear uses in Homeric Greek, so few that we can scrutinize them all.
First, we have the remarkable fact that the ancient grammarians translated the verb by antikatallássesthai ‘to obtain as a consequence of a competitive test’; this definition, which modern lexicographers have not noticed, is certainly exact, as is shown by the Homeric examples: right at the beginning of the Odyssey (1, 5), where the subject is the tribulations of Odysseus, the hero, of whom the poet asks the muse to sing, ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων ‘he who seeks to gain his own life and the return of his companions’.
By dint of hard struggles, in the course of the many trials over which he triumphs, he wins the prize, which is to have saved his life and secured the return of his companions. One sees also, Il. 1, 159, timê̂n árnusthai ‘to win his timḗ’, i.e. to win that honor due to a chief, to Agamemnon, in war or in a competition (cf. 5, 553); or, again, árnusthai méga kléos (6, 446) ‘to gain great glory in combat’. Finally, in the pursuit of Hector by Achilles, after their final combat, comes the most significant text (22, 160): οὐχ ἱρήϊον οὐδὲ βοείην ἀρνύσθην ἅ τε ποσσὶν ἀέθλια γίγνεται ἀνδρῶν ‘they were not striving to win a prize for which men compete in a race’, but the true stake was Hector’s life as he was pursued by Achilles.
Thus árnumai signifies “to carry off a hard-won prize in a great competition.” Is it fortuitous that mistharneîn has as a component a verb so specific, which implies precisely the recompense attached to such a test? Incidentally, do not the French say “gagner” a wage, just as they “gagner” a prize, a victory? Thus, directly or indirectly, misthós is certainly the same notion which we have established in Indo-Iranian: a prize, fixed in advance, in a competition. This sense is better preserved in the heroic tradition of the Vedic hymns, but it is still recognizable in Homer. Such is the first use of misthós. Even in the sense of “wage” the notion “recompense fixed in advance and paid when the work is finished” survives. The “prize” in a competition becomes the “wage” for a piece of work.
Gothic and Slavic provide little information. Gothic mizdo serves to translate Gr. misthós and does not present any instructive variation. However, there is in Gothic besides mizdo another term which renders Gr. misthós: this is laun (Old High German lōn, German Lohn) which goes back to an ancient neuter *launom. This rival of the ancient Indo-European term deserves our attention in its own right.
The Gothic laun is not isolated in the Indo-European vocabulary; however, before studying it together with its correspondences, we shall examine the signification which emerges from its uses. It serves as the equivalent of three Greek words: misthós, opsṓnia, kháris, and probably it does not exactly correspond to any of these three.
One passage in particular shows the semantic relations between laun and mizdo in Gothic, precisely where the Greek model employs the single term misthós. Matthew VI, 1: laun ni habaiþ fram attin izwaramma … ‘You have no laun (μισθόν οὐκ ἔχετε) from your Father’; then comes “I tell you in truth, the hypocrites receive their wage” (ἀπέχουσι τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν) andnemun mizdon seina.
To translate the same term Gothic employs two different words within the space of two lines. The second time, mizdo is used because it concerns a proper human wage, the wage of those who are called “hypocrites,” whose recompense is measured in esteem or other advantages. When the wage is to be received from the Father who is in Heaven, it is laun; the word mizdo was considered inappropriate.
It is laun again which is employed to render a very crude expression, the popular word opsṓnia: Romans VI, 23, Launa frawaurhtais dauþus (τὰ ὀψώνια τῆς ἁμαρτίας θάνατος) ‘the wage of sin is death’. The proper sense of opsṓnia is “pay,” that is, provisions other than bread: meat and especially fish given to soldiers, hence the pay of a soldier who is paid in kind. In this passage it is used figuratively: it is the wage, the retribution for sin, and laun is in the plural because of the Greek plural. Another example: “if you repay what you have been given, if you love those who do good to you, if you etc. … where is your kháris?” (Luke VI, 32–34), where kháris ‘grace’ is translated as laun.
We now consider two compounds which will help to narrow down the meaning: sigis-laun, German Siegeslohn, ‘the laun of victory’, which translates brabeîon, the “prize” given by the brabeús, the umpire, to the victor in a competition. It is the term employed for the prize gained in a race in the stadium; the text (I Cor. IX, 24) states this expressly: “of all those who run the race, only one wins the sigislaun.”
The second compound is curious: launa-wargs (II Timothy III, 2) translates akháristos ‘ungrateful, ingrātus’ (Vulgate). It is -wargs which here fulfills the function of a negative preverb, although Gothic had the means of forming a negative adjective with un-. The sense of -wargs is precise and strong: (ga-)wargjan signifies “condemn,” wargiþa ‘condemnation’, Old High German warg ‘criminal’. This is a peculiarly Germanic notion: the warg is put outside the law and banished from the community. The compound launa-wargs thus properly signifies “deprived of laun,” one to whom laun is refused. It is a very forceful expression, much stronger than the term it renders.
Thus we see that laun is something quite different from a wage; it is a gift granted as a favor or an advantage gained by an activity which is no ordinary work (for which mizdo would have been the right term); it is properly a “grace” obtained or a “prize” gained.
The comparative method provides the means of circumscribing the sense still further: lau- is well attested, especially by Lat. -crum (from *lau-tlom), lūcror.
The sense of lūcrum is gain, benefit, with the idea that it represents something unexpected, an unforeseen profit. In other languages, this meaning is more specialized: Skt. lota, lotra ‘booty’ (these are words found in lexicons) and this links up with the Slavic terms: lovŭ ‘booty’, loviti ‘to catch, to capture in hunting’, ‘to grasp’, Gr. lēís (ληΐς) ‘booty’, lēízomai ‘to plunder’, lēístōr ‘brigand’.
The spoils of war, a catch in hunting: such are precisely the advantages which cannot be reckoned with in advance, they are “favors” of some kind. This root is found again in Greek in a different semantic family, that of apolaúō ‘enjoy’. Although “enjoy” is the classical sense of the verb, the ancient sense is still apparent. By connecting it with the idea of “booty,” the development is easy to follow: “to secure a booty and to enjoy it,” “to draw profit from a prize of war or the chase.” The point of departure for Germanic *launom, Got. laun will therefore be “a benefit gained by capture, booty,” hence a gain quite different from the wage which is earned by regular work.
We see thus here a convergence and approximation of two radically different notions in Gothic vocabulary with the words mizdo and laun. The first evokes the idea of competition and the prize attached to it; the second, the spoils of war or the chase, hence favor or recompense in general.
There remains a third term to consider which is limited to Latin: merces, genitive mercedis ‘wage, recompense’, from which comes mercenarius and all the words attached to it. The peculiarity of merces is that it is clearly connected with merx, but the senses of the two words have widely diverged. From the morphological point of view, merces is a formation in -ed-. We have few examples of this formation, and there is no uniformity in these examples; they are generally very unclear terms. We certainly have hered-, but this is an adjective, while merced- is a noun formed from another noun.
This peculiarity noted, we must try and understand how merces is connected with merx, and what relation there can be between the notion of “merchandise” (merx) and that of “remuneration” (merces). It must be stressed that merces is something quite different from a “wage.” What merces remunerates is not the result as such of a working man’s labor, but the sweat of his brow, the soldier’s service in war, the skill of a lawyer and furthermore, in public life, the intervention of a politician, what one would call a trading in influence.
This particular kind of “remuneration” thus connects up with the terms studied in the commercial vocabulary. But it has nothing to do with “commerce” in the ordinary sense.
The notion which may link merx with merces is that the remuneration is made in money: merx, insofar as it means “merchandise,” denotes merchandise obtained for money; not barter, the exchange of one thing for another, but a proper commercial purchase, effected by means of money. Such is the foundation of the connection between the two notions of merx and merces. To understand it better, we may compare the case of French denrée ‘commodity’. In Old French it was denerée ‘what one could obtain for one denier’, a product which can be paid for, which enters into commerce. This is what constitutes the connection between merx and commercium.
Merces is therefore a payment which recompenses the temporary services of a man for a particular project. The term denotes quite a new notion, the introduction of money into the relations between men to buy services just as one buys a commodity.
These different terms, considered together here because of their meaning, have connections which must be retraced if we want to understand how it was possible for them to converge from such different origins. They reveal the complexity of the important aspects of civilization which they denote. Here we can see how in the vocabulary and economy of different Indo-European peoples the notion of “wages” was developed from that of “recompense,” whether in war or play, in proportion to the gradual establishment of fixed labor relationships, and how the notions of “commerce” and “merchandise” in their turn determined a new type of remuneration.
The same processes are repeated in the terminological innovations in modern languages. For instance, the solde (soldier’s pay), whence comes soldat < Ital. soldato ‘remunerated by a solde’, used with reference to men-at-arms. Formerly speakers were conscious of the connection with Lat. solidum ‘piece of gold’ (from which comes Fr. sol, sou). As with the word salary, the words have diverged so far in meaning that present-day speakers have little notion that the “salary” was, in its Latin form, the salarium ‘the money given to soldiers to buy salt’ (Lat. sal). Again, pay derives from Lat. pacare ‘to satisfy, to appease (by a distribution of money)’. Further, French gages ‘wages’ is the plural of gage ‘guarantee, ransom’. The images of war, of mercenary services, preceded and engendered those of work and the legal remuneration attached to it.