Sunday, 12 February 2017


I first began tracing my ancestry more than thirty years ago. Oral family history spoke of an ancestor being 'the Honourable' and I began a long search.

It turned out to be half right but did make me wonder just where these titles came from.

Earl is possibly the most likely to be known, this being of Saxon or Old English origins where eorl originally coiuld be used to mean 'brave man, warrior, leader, chief' and contracted with the peasant or churl.

Baron came to English from Old French, and ultimately from Latin baro or simply 'man'. Note the Franks used the same word to mean 'freeman', which may well have helped develop the idea of a higher ranking. Clearly both 'baronet' and 'baroness' are derivations.

Count is another coming to English from Old French. Here conte is from the Latin comitem meaning 'companion, attendant', and used as the title for a provincial governor. The feminine 'coountess' is first seen in the middle of the 12th century.

Duke, once again, came from Old French where duc and the earlier Latin dux both meant 'leader'. All these terms can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European deuk meaning 'to lead'. Interestingly the rank od duke, or indeed duchess, is unrecorded before the end of the 12th century.

Lord comes from Old English hlaford 'master of the house' and is itself from the earlier Old English hlafweard, quite literally 'one who guards the loaves'. This dovetails quite nicely with the origins of 'lady' or hlafaeta meaning 'bread kneader'.

Marquis, and therefore marchioness, is from Old French marchis, quite literally 'ruler of a border area' and taken from Old French marche and Latin marca both meaning 'frontier'.

Viscount and viscountess can be traced to Old French visconte and ultimately from the Latin vice 'deputy' and comes 'nobleman'.

Dame is from Old French dame, 'lady, mistress, wife' and genrally referring to 'the woman of the house' as this comes from the Latin domus 'house'. Both Spanish and Portuguese 'don' share the same origin.

Hidalgo is unrecorded before 1590, this thought to be a shortened form of filho de algo or 'son of someone'. Late Iberian usage probably points to an Arabic origin of ibn nas or 'son of the people' which was used as an honorary title.

Knight came from Old English cniht meaning 'boy, youth, servant, attendant'. Not until the Normans arrived did it become any sort of title or standing.

Noble is a collective term first seen at the end of the 12th century. Coming to English from Old French noble and Latin nobilis, it simply means 'of high birth' just as it does in English today. Interestingly this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European gno 'to know' and used in the sense of 'well known'.

Seneschal is an Old French term meaning 'steward, majordomo' in its simplest terms. Despite coming to English from French, the term is Proto-Germanic where sini-skalk 'senior servant' is related to modern words such as 'senile' and 'marshal'.

Squire may not have been the highest of ranks but proved to be the first step on the ladder for many. This comes from Old French esquier or 'shield carrier' and most often seen today in the form of address 'esquire'.

Honourable was the one which started all this and is recorded in English from the end of the 13th century. Clearly a word used as an adjective and derived from 'honour', the latter coming from Old French onor, which is why we do not pronounce the 'h', and from Latin honorem 'dignity, reputation'.

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