Siena: Allegory of Bad Government (1338-39), by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (circa 1290-1348)
The noun bankrupt is from Italian bancarotta, attested since the 15th century, and its French adaptation banqueroute, first recorded in 1466.
The English word is first attested in the plural form bancke rouptes in The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight (1533), by the English scholar and statesman Thomas More (1478-1535), and in the form banke rota in a letter that the English statesman Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) wrote to Henry VIII on 16th April 1539 (incidentally, Henry VIII (1491-1547) had both these statesmen executed). The change in the ending of the word was due to association with Latin rupt-, broken.
In Queen Anna’s New World of Words, Or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues (1611), the English lexicographer of Italian descent John Florio (circa 1553-1625) thus defined the following Italian nouns:
– Banca, any bench or forme [= long seat without a back]. Also a banke.
– Banco, any bench or forme. Also a marchants banke, counter or counting house.
– Banchiere, a banker or mony lender.
– Bancarotta, a bankrupt marchant.
– Banchierotto, a bankerupt marchant.
The element rotto, feminine rotta, is the past participle of the verb rompere. Another form of this past participle is romputo/romputa. John Florio thus defined those words:
– Rotto, broken.
– Romputo, broken, battred, torne, split, burst, shivered, rent, tattred, rag’d, crusht or crazed in pieces or in sunder. Also put to rout, overthrowen, defeated or destroyed. Also broken or bankerout.
– Rompere (past participle rotto, or romputo), to breake, to batter, to teare, to split, to burst, to shiver, to rend, to totter, to crush or craze in pieces or a sunder. Also to wracke. Also to put to rout, to overthrow or destroy, and defeat. Also to breake or be bankerout. Also to suffer shipwracke.
The traditional origin of bancarotta is found for example in A Dictionary of the English Language (1785 edition), by the English lexicographer, writer, critic and conversationalist Samuel Johnson (1709-84):
It is said that the money-changers of Italy had benches, probably in the burse of exchange; and that when any became insolvent, his ‘banco’ was ‘rotto’, his bench was broke.
But in view of the definitions given by John Florio, the allusion is more probably figurative, like the familiar use of to break in the sense of to become bankrupt and of its past participle broken/broke in the sense of financially ruined. For example, in The Merchant of Venice (around 1596), by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Antonio, a merchant, says to Shylock, a moneylender:
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.
In the same play, there is the following dialogue between Shylock and his friend Tubal:
There came divers of Antonio’s creditors in my
company to Venice, that swear he cannot choose but break.
I am very glad of it: I’ll plague him; I’ll torture
him: I am glad of it.
Similarly, the Latin ruptus, past participle of rumpere, to break, was used in the sense of a ‘broken’ man, that is to say a bankrupt, for example in Conventiones Civitatis Saonæ (Conventions of the City of Siena), a text dating back to 1334.
The supposed origin of bancarotta seems to have led the French satirist François Rabelais (circa 1494-1553) to play on the similarity in pronunciation between banqueroute and banc rompu, broken bench, in The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel (La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel – 1534):
In the like darkness are wrapped up these vainglorious courtiers and transposers of names, who wishing to signify in their devices espoir have portrayed a sphere; birds’ pens for pains; l’ancholie for melancholy; the horned moon for a crescent fortune; a broken bench for bankrupt.
En pareilles tenebres sont comprins ces glorieux de court, et transporteurs de noms, lesquelz, voulens en leurs divises signifier espoir, font pourtraire une sphere ; des pennes d’oiseaulx pour poines ; de l’ancholie, pour mélancholie ; la lune bicorne, pour vivre en croissant ; ung banc rompu, pour bancqueroutte.
French had the expression rompre banque, literally to break bank, meaning to become bankrupt. It was used for example in La Réformation des Dames de Paris faicte par les Lyonnoises (The Reformation of the Ladies of Paris made by those of Lyon), a poem written around 1536:
Chascun se plaint et dit qu’il est contraint,
Pour vostre train, rompre banque en la ville.
Everybody complains and says that they are compelled,
For your lifestyle, to break bank in the city.