When Adam Smith wrote on “the wealth of nations” what did he mean by “wealth”?

This was the initial query sent to the Societies for the History of Economic Thought discussion thread on June 16.

Dear colleagues,
I’m trying to trace the source of translating “economics” as “the science of wealth” (and sometimes “the science of the wealth of nations”) in late nineteenth-century Ottoman-Turkish. Ottoman economists most probably rendered it from French (“la science de la richesse”), from popular sources preceding the 1860s. I could find expressions like “l’économie politique est la science de la richesse” in many economic texts from the era, but I’m trying to understand how common it was to use “la science de la richesse” instead of or interchangeably with “l’économie politique” referring to the discipline itself.

What has followed has been a brief discourse that amounts to the statement from one of the French correspondents that “it is very easy to show that ‘science de la richesse‘ was a synonym of political economy in the first half of 19th century, not from ‘popular sources’ but just to explain the title of books.” I have therefore sent my own brief contribution along, because I do think that words make a very great deal of difference in how we think and what we are able to understand.

It has seemed to me for a while that the title, The Wealth of Nations, is an eighteenth century use of words and is somewhat misleading as to the point that Smith was making. I have tried to find a modern phrase that would capture what he meant, and the closest I have been able to come to is: The Prosperity of Nations. “Wealth” has a kind of treasure chest notion to it (which it may not have had back then), and the word “wealthy” is tied to personal riches, which is not at all, I think, what Smith was trying to get at. So when I read that the French for “wealth” is “richesse“, or that my google translator turns “The Wealth of Nations” into “la richesse des nations“, I really do therefore wonder how much has been lost in translation. Because when I translate the English word “riches” into French, it gives me “richesse” once again. The alternative French to English of “richesse” are “wealth”, “richness”, “riches”, “rich” and “affluent”. And for the French word “riche” we get these English translations: “rich”, “wealthy”, “affluent”, “opulent”, “splendid” and “luxurious”. Each of them seem totally inadequate to making sense of what Smith had in mind or what the book is about. This seems to me more than just a curiosity.

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