PRIMARY MEANINGS OF LOOT
– noun: goods stolen during pillaging, as in wartime, during riots, etc. – goods, money, etc., obtained illegally
– verb: to pillage (a city, settlement, etc.) during war or riots – to steal (money or goods), especially during pillaging
The following definition is from Hobson-Johnson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive, first published in 1886, by Henry Yule (1820-89) and Arthur Coke Burnell (1840-82):
LOOT, substantive & verb. Plunder; Hindi lūṭ, and that from Sanskrit lotra, for loptra, root lup, ‘rob, plunder’; [rather luṇṭ, ‘to rob’]. The word appears in Stockdale’s Vocabulary¹, of 1788, as “Loot—plunder, pillage.” It has thus long been a familiar item in the Anglo-Indian colloquial. But between the Chinese War of 1841, the Crimean War (1854-5), and the Indian Mutiny (1857-8), it gradually found acceptance in England also, and is now a recognised constituent of the English Slang Dictionary². Admiral Smyth has it in his Nautical Glossary³ (1867) thus: “Loot, plunder, or pillage, a term adopted from China.”
¹ The Indian Vocabulary. To which is prefixed the Forms of Impeachments (printed for John Stockdale – London, 1788)
² In The Slang Dictionary; or, The vulgar words, street phrases, and “fast” expressions of high and low society. Many with their etymology, and a few with their history traced (London, 1864), by the English publisher and author John Camden Hotten (1832-73), loot appeared as “swag, or plunder.—Hindoo.”
³ The Sailor’s Word-Book (London, 1867), by the British naval officers William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) and Edward Belcher (1799-1877)
One of the earliest uses of the noun loot in English is from Persia, Afghanistan, and India, published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of January 1839:
The annals of the Pindarry war show how easily a marauding force, held together solely by the hope of spoil, is collected in India. The famous freebooting leader, Ameer Khan (lately dead), on being asked how he contrived to keep together the various tribes and religions found in the ranks of his motley followers, said that he always found the talismanic gathering word Loot (plunder) a sufficient bond of union in any part of India.
The noun loot came to be also used as slang for money; in Service slang: a first selection (London, 1943), John Leslie Hunt and Alan George Pringle wrote:
Loot, Scottish slang for money received on pay day.
The English novelist John Le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell – born 1931) used the word in this sense in A Most Wanted Man (Hodder & Stoughton – London, 2008):
If you were trying to induce a ranking Soviet to risk his neck for capitalism, then believe me, Tommy, you had to offer him what capitalism was all about: money and sackloads of it.
[…] And a key component of this package was a sound, flexible Western bank with plenty of tradition behind it, because you know as well as I do, Tommy, your Russian loves tradition. Another key component was a waterproof system for transferring his hard-earned loot to his heirs and assigns without the formalities that normally attach: probate, estate duty, disclosure and the inevitable questions about where said loot came from, all the stuff you know about, Tommy.
The noun came to also denote wedding presents; the American magazine Life of 13th September 1954 had the following:
SULTAN OF SWAP
Trader John lives by finding unwanted presents
The neat, small house at 5257 Twenty-Seventh Avenue in Minneapolis is festooned with new awnings and girdled by a new fence, boasts a freshly painted garage and a recently sodded lawn and has the busiest basement in town. This is all because an affable, natural-born swapper named John Ludewig decided to take pity on the many brides who get duplicate wedding presents —two toasters or five bonbon dishes or ten candlesticks.
Last January Ludewig unveiled his new store, called the Recherché (which means “sought out”) Wedding Gift Basement, where newlyweds could dump their unusable loot. Since then nearly 500 brides have sought out the Recherché. They pay Ludewig 10% of the retail cost of their item and can credit the balance toward the exchange of any other item Ludewig has. As small appliances began piling up on his shelves, Trader John, as he calls himself, began swapping them for items he needed—everything from groceries to grass. He now keeps the Recherché open weekends and evenings by appointment and, beyond the services which he obtains for nothing by swapping, manages to net about $100 a week.