From buying or selling a house, protecting yourself and your family with insurance, or investing for your financial future, today’s word represents the gatekeepers for many of life’s most important decisions. The term can represent one person or an international company and be anything from prestigious to discount, but, when it comes down to it, they perform a function that many of us are unable or unwilling to do. Still, for such a necessary position, the word itself often gets used will little to no understanding of how it came to be what it is, so let’s take a look at the word broker.
The term broker originally comes from the Old French brocheor, which is a verbal noun from brochier, meaning ‘to broach, tap, pierce (a keg)’. Obviously, considering the original meaning, the term initially dealt specifically with wine dealers, who acted as intermediaries or brokers for wine producers and public houses or other entities. However, in an abstract sense, the role of a broker is literally to pierce or broach a specific topic in order to facilitate a transaction.
While we have come to associate the word with a certain degree of education or a special set of skills, it certainly didn’t begin with such regard. The first mentions of the term in English occur in William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (written c. 1370–90), where he states that: “I have lent lords and ladies my wares and been the broker after, and bought it myself”, suggesting the term was thought of as a second-hand dealer or pawnbroker. Even more unenviable, Langland later writes: “yet am I broker of backbiting- and blame men ware”, giving the term a derisive meaning as little more than a petty dealer or retailer.
By the early 15th century, our word as we known it began to take shape. Far from the petty peddler image of a half-century prior, specialisation is occurring, with the term denoting the action of linking buyer and seller for specific goods or tasks. For example, the Will of Robert Beche from 1410 specifically mentions “John Houghton, Broker Artis Aurifabrorum”, which is a broker of goldsmiths (such as jewellery). Dr. Alexander Barclay, in his Eclogues (c1530), uses the term to suggest an intermediary in love affairs, like a matchmaker, stating that: “So many wowers, bawdys and brokers..that chaste Penelope could scant among them preserve her chastity.” Seeing brokers as a more of an asset than a liability, George Wapull mentions in The Tide Tarrieth No Man (1576) that: “Your helper is a broker, between man and man, whereby much deceit thou used now and then.”
The specialisation that started in the 1400s had firmly taken root by the Victorian age. A published collection of Speeches given by Richard Cobden from 1849 speaks of: “The cotton brokers of Liverpool, and the cotton spinners of Manchester.” Moreover, John Ramsay McCulloch’s Dictionary of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1852) explores the differing roles that an individual broker can play, writing that: “Their charge as ship brokers is about 2 per cent. on the gross receipts. When they act as insurance brokers they charge 5 per cent. on the premium.”
Fast forward to today, where, in the United States alone, there are 1.1 million insurance agents/brokers/service employees, 630,000 FINRA-registered investment representatives, over 1.3 million real estate brokers, and (for the sake of argument) over 10,000 pawnbrokers. Clearly, unlike the suspect peddlers of the past, we have come to understand that seeking the assistance of an informed intermediary almost always guarantees a better (and less expensive) result than blindly trying to do it yourself.