Dead Romans and Live Americans

Libero Ingresso” says the little sign on the doors of an Italian shop.  English speakers who know enough Italian to translate the words, Free Entrance, sometimes wonder if there was a time when Italian shopkeepers charged customers an admission fee, to be refunded, perhaps, if a purchase was made.  It is just the sort of thing you might expect of Old Europe.  We Anglo-Saxons, after all, revealed the truths of free-market economics at a time when the rest of the world was groaning in the darkness of mercantilism and protectionism, when honest farmers and merchants paid taxes on their windows and might be forced to labor on their lord’s land or the king’s highway.

Alas, these speculations, so comforting to our Anglo-Saxon vanity, are dashed on the hard rock of linguistic reality.  Libero (from the Latin liber) means “free” in the sense of unrestricted or open, not “free” in the sense of no payment required (for which the Italians still use the Latin gratis).  French preserves the distinction between liber (French libre) and gratuitus (gratuity).  In Spanish, de gastos (“of charge”) is added to libre for things that cost no money; otherwise one might try to walk out of a bar without paying for a Cuba libre.

Romance languages have inherited something...

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