Stories behind words: loophole

Posted by on October 30, 2013

www.wordle.netThere was a news story in the UK last week about the government’s failure to “close a tax loophole which costs the UK economy at least £500m a year”. A loophole is, according to the Macmillan Dictionary, “something that has been left out of a law or legal document that people can use to avoid obeying it”. Taxation is one of the most common contexts in which we find this word. Tax laws are extremely complex, and there is an ongoing battle of wits, where one side (clever accountants, typically working for big corporations or wealthy individuals) try to find and exploit loopholes in the legislation, while the other side (the government) tries to plug or close them. (These are the most common verb collocates.)

But why loophole? The word originally referred to those long narrow openings in the walls of old castles, which allowed defenders to fire arrows or bullets at an enemy with little risk of their attackers’ missiles finding their way in through the loophole. This usage dates back to the 16th century, but the object it describes is far older, and was originally just called a “loop”. (The OED’s earliest citation for this meaning is dated 1393, and comes from the poem Piers Plowman.)

The “modern” meaning of loophole is itself over 300 years old, but it’s not entirely clear how we get from a narrow window in a castle to an omission – in a law or contract, for example – that provides an opportunity for evading its intended purpose. The consensus seems to be that he current use developed not from Middle English loop (a window) but from Dutch loop (which is related to the verb loopen, meaning “to run”), and from the now obsolete Dutch word loopgat, which was a hole through which someone or something could “run away” or escape. Somehow this concept – which is also reflected in loophole’s near-synonym escape clause - attached itself to the existing word loophole, and it’s easy to see why. The loopholes in a castle give you an advantage over your adversary, and so – potentially – do the loopholes in a law or contract.

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