Tag Archives: Words The Indians Gave Us

The Word History of Looting


With people everywhere developing a strange obsession with purchase of toilet paper, I’ve decided to take a linguistic look at the word looting, which luckily has nothing to do with loo rolls, despite the similar spelling.

Graeme Donald tells me in his book of military word history “Stickler, Sideburns and Bikinis” that the word loot comes from the Hindustani word lut (plunder). He tells the story of a lootie. The lootie was an irregular local soldier who was attached the British army in India during the 1800s who was paid in an unusual way. They received food and lodging and an extra bonus – the right to loot bodies after the battles.

The Hindi word lut came from Sanskrit lotram (booty or stolen property) and ultimately from a PIE root word reup (to snatch) which is related to our modern verb to rip, as one might rip a sheet of toilet paper from the roll.

Amazingly, lootie does turn up as a colloquial Anglo-India word entering English from 1821, and I even found an account of looties carrying away nine elephants, a tough trick at the best of times and hardly something you might find in a dead soldier’s pocket. Looting and picking over bodies after battles has been a feature of war for thousands of years, but I was surprised to find it authorised by the British army in the 1800s.

Hopefully the current loo-roll obsession won’t lead to anything along these lines.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)