How did the word “tariff” originate and What does tariff mean in Arabic?

Some books that may still be in circulation account for the word “tariff” in an interesting fashion.

The story is plausible, but unfortunately is not true.

It runs thus: For many centuries the Moors had strongholds on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar.

Thus their vessels were able to intercept all merchant craft sailing into or out of the Mediterranean and exact tribute.

On the European side, the Moorish pirates had their quarters in a town nestling at the foot of the Rock of Gibraltar, the name of which was Tarifa. That much of the story is true.

There was such a Moorish town, named in the eighth century from the Moorish invader, Tarif, and the Moors did use it for piratical raids until the end of the thirteenth century.

But, although our word tariff is Arabian in source, it was not derived from the name of the Moorish village, Tarifa, as the story concludes. The real source is humdrum by comparison.

The Arabic term for “inventory” is ta’rif. This became tarifa in Spanish and tariffe in French, from which it became English tariff.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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