Why do we say “invertir” instead of “investir” in Spanish?

History of the financial term “to invest”

This term comes from medieval latin investire, composed of in which means anything like “in”, “inside” or “into” and vestire, that is “to clothe”, which has remained vestire in Italian and became vestir in Spanish and vêtir in French (a synonym of habiller).

The term investire was first used in Italian in the military sense “to besiege” or “to surround an ennemy” and was passed on to English and French. From late 16th / early 17th century, investir started to be used in French as “to endow with an authority” or “to assign someone a duty” and was quickly passed on to English (1640s) and to other languages. This sense has remained until now and can be heard in English in expressions such as “to be invested as president”, in French in investiture or in Spanish in investidura.

In the sense “to assign someone a financial duty” , “to invest” was first used in Italian in the early 14th century and English at the beginning of the 17th century (by T. Aldworth). What was originally “to clothe into” became  “to put money into”! This sense did not really cross the Channel before the beginning of the 20th century. “Investir” as a financial term entered the Larousse dictionary in 1922 and “investisseur” was denounced by A. Hermant as an anglicism for “investor” in 1937!1

Did the Spanish language get it wrong?


Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico
Joan Coromines, José A. Pascual, Gredos, 20 sept. 2001

If you look up invertir in Spanish standard and even etymological dictionaries, the Spanish verb originates from invertere, which means “to reverse”. But today, the Spanish term invertir has two main meanings: “to reverse” and “to invest money”. And clearly, the etymology for the second one deserves a much better explanation! Some websites2 offer dubious explanations for the etymology of this term in the financial sense, such as “to invest money amounts to reversing it, since when you invest your money, you block your money now to get more in the future”.

It sounds perfectly fine, sometimes etymological explanations can be even more far-fetched than this… But this is a speculative, retrospective justification of what appears to be a simple adaptation of the word for the sake of easier pronunciation… Just like cocodrilo should be crocodilo because it comes from latin crocodīlus… Just like the country Argelia should in fact be Algeria… The real history of the word just got lost somewhere and it’s nothing to be ashamed of! Language is no rocket science, sometimes language development just follows simple patterns.

The explanation seems to be much more straightforward than that of the website quoted above: the word “to invest” in the sense “to put money into” crossed the Channel at the beginning of the 20th century. But when it reached the France/Spain border it had already walked more than 1000 km! Crossing the Pyrenees was just too big of a challenge… It didn’t make it to Madrid!

 

Maybe Spain was not that into financial terminology at the time. The word invertir, which already existed in the sense “to reverse”, was used instead of investir, which already existed in Spanish, meaning “to besiege” and “to endow with an authority” just like in all the other languages we mentioned. So, from a historical point of view, the Spanish for “to invest” should have been investir instead of invertir. But it seems there’s nothing we can do about it…

 
A proof that invertir is not perfect?

What often happens when a word has been adapted (for instance, for easier pronunciation) or when its origin is dubious is that derivations of this word are not easy to build... and the main indicator of this difficulty is when multiple derivations exist for one specific sense.

Here is a quick example of how difficult it is to build derivations when the origin of a word is dubious. American social network Twitter decided that the verb for publishing one of their short messages should be “to tweet”. How did an i become ee? Because they decided so… OK, but in other languages, what do we do? Well, in other languages, multiple derivations exist! For instance, an article in French newspaper Liberation (28/01/14) on the same topic reads “Un graffiti peint sur un mur de Rome montrant le pape François en superman a été twitté mardi” whereas another article published on the website of French news channel LCI (28/01/14) reads “Un graffiti montrant le pape François en superman a été tweeté mardi”… This is just an example but there are thousands of these.

In this specific case:
- Invertir is the root verb (“to invest”). It is accepted by all Spanish speakers.
- Inversión is a derivated noun (“investment”). It is accepted by all Spanish speakers.
- Inversor is a derivated noun (“investor”). It is only accepted in Spain.
- Inversionista is a derivated noun (“investor”). It is only accepted in Latin America.

If invertir was investir, it would be a lot easier:
- Investir would be the root verb (“to invest”). It would be accepted by all Spanish speakers.
- Investimiento would be the derivated noun for “investment”. It would be accepted by all Spanish speakers.
- Investidor would be the derivated noun for “investor”. It would be accepted by all Spanish speakers.

As a conclusion, invertir should be investir if the rules of common sense had been applied at the beginning on the 20th century. It would be easier for everyone. But there’s nothing we can do about it! And in the end, does it really matter?

References

1 Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, http://www.cnrtl.fr/
2 http://definicion.de/inversion/: Una inversión, en el sentido económico, es una colocación de capital para obtener una ganancia futura. Esta colocación supone [renunciar a] un beneficio inmediato por uno futuro y, por lo general, improbable.