It was reported recently that Dutch archaeologists had found an administrative centre of the ancient Assyrian empire, 3400 years old, in which an archive listed the names of “employees accepting bribes”. After a wry thought about how nothing changes, it seemed appropriate to look up the history of bribery. And what a convoluted story it turns out to be.
It starts in medieval French, where bribe meant “a piece of bread”. A linguistic game of consequences led the sense from this to “a piece of bread given to a beggar”, then more generally to “alms” and “living upon alms”, to “begging” and so to associations with mendicancy and vagabondage. By a further very short step the meaning arrived at “theft; stealing”.
It was with the last of these senses that the word first appeared in English in the fourteenth century, in the works of Chaucer and his contemporaries. It soon evolved further to take in the idea of extortion, or demanding money with menaces. Only in this usage did bribe finally come to mean a sum of money, though at this time briber meant the person doing the menacing and so getting the money. The worst offenders were often judges and public officials, who extorted money from claimants in order to pass down a favourable outcome.
It was in the sixteenth century that the meaning flipped completely over so that briber meant instead the person handing over the money. Nobody seems to know quite how this happened. In the process bribe changed to mean a supposedly voluntary inducement instead of something extracted by force, so arriving at the sense which it has retained ever since.