Weird words: Why an escrow isn't an escroc

Working as I occasionally do as a translator of contractual and other legalese documents, I occasionally come across the English word escrow.

It is a noun, defined by my dictionary  as:

a bond, deed, or other document kept in the custody of a third party and taking effect only when a specified condition has been fulfilled.

However this term has a tendency to terrify the French, because there is a French word, escrow which is defined by my dictionary (translated from the French, bien entendu):

person who commits, or is in the habit of committing, confidence tricks or petty fraud.

As I'm sure you can imagine, my French customers hardly want their legal arrangements in any way associated with petty fraud or cons.

So how did two words that are pronounced the same, and written almost the same come to have such widely different meanings?

My French and Italian etymological dictionaries blame eachother, but I tend to go along with the Italian dictionary's assertion that "escroc" is French in origin - but as these thing do, it may well have gone both ways, between the nominal and verbal forms in each language escroc, scrocco, and escroquerie, scroccare respectively.

Either way, the number one suspect is the French word croc, in Old French a hook, in modern French a fang. The prefix e-, es- would therefore suggest 'unhooking' - which suggest a cutpurse or pockpocket, however it may also suggest coin clipping, or some other form of skimming or graft.

As to escrow, my preferred source for English etymology is of course Doug Harper. He has this to say:

1590s, from Anglo-French escrowe, from Old French escroe "scrap, small piece, rag, tatter, single parchment," from a Germanic source akin to Old High German scrot "a scrap, shred, a piece cut off" (see shred (n.)). Originally a deed delivered to a third person until a future condition is satisfied, which led to sense of "deposit held in trust or security" (1888).

It is also probably worth speculating that there may be a connexion with crotte which is closely related to the OHG scrot and which means an animal dropping or other small blob of organic waste.

Either way, how does the taking away or unhooking of a small scrap or fragment, become the setting aside with a trusted third party a deed or sum of money?

With the sources I have available, there is only some very thin speculation, but here is what I think is most plausible:

There is anecdotal evidence, and evidence in historical archives, of documents, in particular title deeds and bills of sale, that have either been cut in half, or have been stamped, and the stamped part cut through, leaving part of the stamp or seal on the two pieces.

Going out on an even thinner limb - maybe at one time, property that was in dispute was literally placed on a hook until ownership was settled?

And another - practically the tip of a leaf, is encrouer which means to attach, hang up or hang a person from a hook, as a means of detaining a condemned prisoner (the meaning is shared with the Italian word incrocare), which suggests a general meaning of 'setting something aside' - but which brings us back to the unwanted criminal associations.

Sometimes you just can't know. Suffice to say that in modern English an escrow is not merely a good guy, but someone universally trusted, while in modern French an escroc might not be a thoroughly bad person, but certainly should not be trusted!

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