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A musician friend recently asked us for help with an Irish melody called "The New Demesne".  "I can play it fine", he said "but how do you pronounce it? And what on Earth does it mean?"

First, the pronunciation.  Most people (among those few who have even heard of the word) pronounce demesne as "demean".  The s was never pronounced but was inserted by medieval scribes to indicate a long e.  These ever-helpful scribes may also have been unduly influenced by a similar word, mesnie (pronounced "meany") meaning "mansion".

Under the feudal system, a demesne was the territory ruled by a lord.  Both demesne and domain derive from Latin dominicum, "of a (or the) lord".  This, in Medieval Latin, was often mispelled as dominium and we have incorporated this, too, into English as dominion.  Thus, demesne, domain and dominion are essentially the same words.  Considering this proliferation of similar words it is surprising to discover that mesne, as in the feudal term a mesne lord (pronounced "a mean lord"), is in no way related to demesne but is related to mean average.

The word cottage also has its origin in the feudal system.  Nowadays, it is taken to mean "a small humble dwelling" but this was not always the case. In Old English such a dwelling was called a cot and its inhabitant was a cotter (hence the family name Cotter).  Incidentally, this cot has no linguistic connection to the cot which means "a child's bed" which was borrowed from Hindi (khatta, "bed") relatively recently.  The cot which means "a small dwelling" is related to the -cote in dovecote and is descended from the Indo-European root *ku-, ancestor also of cubby (as in cubby-hole) and coop.  This last word, meaning "barrel", has largely fallen into disuse but we still have chicken-coop, cooped-up and the name Cooper (i.e. "barrel-maker").  The root *ku- also gave us cock (as in haycock) but not the cock which means "rooster".  It did, however, give us chicken and possibly cow (the verb, not the animal).

In the feudal system of the Middle Ages each knight was accompanied in battle by at least two squires (or "esquires", from Latin escutarius, "shield-bearer"). In return, the squires were provided with a cot and its surrounding land. The squire was said to possess this "tenement" (literally "a holding", from Latin tenere, "to hold") by "right of cottage".  So, cottage was originally a term which denoted the obligation a knight had to provide a cot in return for military service.  Soon, however, it came to refer to the entire tenement or, as we would say, "small-holding". 

Curiously, to dwell originally (in the 9th century) meant "to stupify" or "to mislead".  By the year 1000 the meaning had shifted from stupefaction to delay.  For the next 200 years it drifted through "to remain [for a while]" before coming to rest at "to reside" sometime around 1250.

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2001 TIERE
Last Updated 01/19/02 02:48 PM