Issue 121, page 1

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A reader recently asked if sheriff was really derived from shire-reeve and if constable truly meant "count of the stable". The answer to both is a resounding "er.. well, kind of".

First off, we should explain that shire (from Old English scir) means "county" and a reeve (from Old English gerefa) was a "king's representative".  Sheriff is the modern form of the Old English scirgerefa but, although that literally means "shire-reeve", there never was a post of shire-reeve as such.  One might imagine that gerefa is related to the German title of graf (or grave) but, apparently, the resemblance is coincidental.  Among those who care about such matters, the German rank of graf is considered equivalent to that of earl in England and count in other parts of Europe.  Earl is from the Old English word eorl which in its original usage could mean either "a noble" (i.e. not a churl) or "a warrior" and possibly derives from the Indo-European root *ers- meaning simply "a man". 

The title of count comes from Latin comes, "companion" (from cum, "with") and is literally "one who accompanies" the ruler.  The literal meaning was seldom true, however, and comes was merely a vague title of rank used in the Roman Empire.  By 438 A.D. it was being applied so loosely that a groom or stable-servant was called comes stabuli. This is the origin of constable and it would be more accurate to translate it as "officer of the stable", not "count of the stable". Another word of similar meaning is marshal, from Old High German marahscalh (literally "horse-servant") which has relatives in English mare "female horse" and German schalk, "rogue".  Knight and sergeant also come from words meaning "servant": knight from Old English cniht "servant" and sergeant from Latin servientem "serving".  Baron derives from a late Latin word baro which, according to context, could mean "man", "servant" or even "blockhead".

Just as one would suspect, a county is the territory of a count but at one time the terms were used interchangeably. Thus, a 16th century writer referred to "Iohn, countie of Arminack" where we would have said "John, count of Armagnac".  Count has never been used as an English title, though an earl's wife is called a countess and the rank immediately below earl is viscount (i.e. vice-count).

As duke comes from Latin dux (= "leader") it would be natural to assume that it has its origins in ancient Rome. But its history is not that simple. The first dukes were leaders of the Lombards - members of a Teutonic tribe which invaded northernEdward "Duke" Ellington Italy in the Dark Ages. They adopted the Latin dux as a translation of the Old Teutonic herizogo, "war leader". The territory governed by a duke is a duchy and a duke's wife is a duchess.  While most Americans realize that the expression "put up your dukes" means "raise your fists" there are few who recognize it as an example of rhyming-slang.  Duke of York was once slang for "fork" and fork was slang for "hand".  So "put up your dukes" (first recorded in 1874) is short for "put up your Duke of Yorks" which translates to "put up your hands".  Other "duke" phrases are the Duke of Exeter’s daughter (not a comely wench but an instrument of torture invented by the eponymous Duke) and "to dine with Duke Humphrey" (= "go without dinner").

One old meaning of mark (or march) was "a boundary", a meaning which is preserved in the The Marchioness of Londonberry and Lady Mairi Stewart, 1923 - John Lavery word landmark, and territory which lies along a boundary is known as marches.  Thus a nobleman who was given responsibility for securing the borderlands was called in Latin comes marchionem ("count of the borderland") which later became shortened to marchion.  In Middle English, this term was replaced by marquis although the wife of a marquis is still a marchioness.

The word king is related to kin.  Presumably, the first kings lead a single tribe who all considered each other to be kin.  Judging by its roots, a queen is simply the wife of a king - from Old English cwen "wife".  This form took its present exalted meaning by Middle English while the related form quean came to mean  "harlot".

From an etymological perspective, the highest rank of all should be prince as it comes from Latin princeps "first" (from primus "first" + -cipere "to take").  However (at least in the English system) the order of precedence is king, queen, prince, princess, duke, marquis, earl, viscount, baron, knight.

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