Thursday, April 6, 2017

Yes, sir! ¡Sí, señor! Oui, monsieur!

[This blog entry comes from a chapter of Part II of the open textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics]

1.1. Eng. sir and sire

English sir is a regular English word. Spanish señor, and French monsieur are foreign words that most English speakers are probably familiar with. The interesting thing is that they all share the same origin in the Latin language.

The English word sir, pronounced [ˈsɪɹ], is found in the English language since about the year 1300, towards the end of the Middle Ages. It began as a title of honor for a knight or a baronet, though it was also used for priests until the 17th century. Originally, sir was a spelling variant of the word sire, which can be found in English since the 12th century. The word became a common respectful form of address a few decades later and it is found as a salutation in letters 100 years later, in the early 15th century.

In Modern English, the word sir is ‘used as a form of polite address for a man: Don't forget your hat, sir’ and ‘as a salutation in a letter: Dear Sir or Madam’ (COED). In the UK, it is also ‘used as an honorific before the given name or the full name of baronets and knights’ (COED). In the Middle Ages, a knight was ‘a man raised to honorable military rank after service as a page and squire’ (COED). Nowadays, in the UK a knight is ‘a man awarded a non-hereditary title by the sovereign and entitled to use the honorific ‘Sir’ in front of his name’ (COED), such as Sir Elton John. In chess, it is ‘the chess piece with a horse’s head on it’ (LDCE), equivalent to Sp. caballo ‘horse’.

The word sire from which sir derived is archaic in Modern English. To the extent that Modern English speakers are familiar with the word sire, pronounced [ˈsaɪ̯əɹ], it is ‘(archaic) a respectful form of address to someone of high social status, especially a king’ (COED), though dictionaries give other, less common meanings for this word, such as ‘the male parent of an animal, especially a stallion or bull kept for breeding’ (COED).

English borrowed the source-word of both sir and sire from Old French, along with many more thousands of words. That is because speakers of a dialect of Old French, the Normans, invaded England in the year 1066 and, as a consequence, the French language had a tremendous influence on the English language for some 300 years (cf. Part I, Chapter 12, §12.1). To this day, we find that close to 30% of the English vocabulary comes from one or other variant of French, mostly from Norman or Parisian varieties of French, though sometimes also from Provençal, or southern French, which is quite different, and which was a prestigious language in the Middle Ages, later to be overshadowed by northern French, the source of Modern Standard French.

Most of the French words that English borrowed come ultimately from Latin, since French is derived mostly from Latin, but the form and meaning of these words may have changed a great deal from what they were in Classical Latin by the time English borrowed them from French 1,000 years later, both in how they were pronounced and what their meanings were. Note that some of the words that English borrowed from French didn’t come from Latin but from Frankish, the language of the Franks, the Germanic people who became rulers of northern France in the early Middle Ages. The Franks originally spoke a Western Germanic language, a close relative of Old English, which is also a Germanic language, unlike French, Italian or Spanish, which are Romance or Latinate languages. (Modern German is also a Germanic language, but the word German should not be confused with the word Germanic, cf. Part I, Chapter 3, §3.6.)

Old French sire (and thus English sir and sire) come from an earlier Old French wordform *sieire, which descended by word of mouth from popular or Vulgar Latin *seior, which is the direct descendant of the Classical Latin word sĕnĭor. Used as a noun, Lat. sĕnĭor came to mean ‘elderly man’, which in Rome meant a man over 45 years of age. A variant of Old French sire was sieur, which descended from the accusative form of Latin sĕnĭor, namely sĕnĭōrem. We will come back to this sieur later, since it is obviously the second part of the French word monsieur.

Before becoming a noun, Latin sĕnĭōr was a comparative adjective, meaning ‘older’ (sĕn-ĭor). Just like English older is the comparative form of the adjective old (old-er), and it is derived from it, Latin sĕnĭor was the comparative form of the adjective sĕnex ‘old’ and derived from it (for more on comparative Latin adjectives, see Part II, Chapter 26). The adjective senex, whose genitive case wordform was sĕnis, contained the adjectival root sĕn‑, meaning ‘old’ (sĕn‑ex, sĕn‑is). The ‑ex and ‑is parts are inflections or grammatical word-parts that marked the word’s grammatical case, which indicated things such as whether the noun was being used as an object (nominative case) or a direct object (accusative case) (cf. Part I, Chapter 5).

The root sĕn‑ can be found in other English and Spanish words, such as Eng. senile ~ Sp. senil, from Lat. sĕnīlis ‘of or belonging to old people, aged, senile’ (L&S), which is a 17th century loanword from written Latin, not from French.[a] The Latin adjective senīlis is derived from the root by means of the derivational suffix ‑īl‑ (sĕn‑īl‑is; the ‑is ending is an adjectival inflection that indicates the word is in the nominative singular case).

As an adjective, sĕnĭor just like sĕnex was both masculine and feminine, for they were both third-declension adjectives, which unlike first-second declension ones, did not have different forms for the masculine and the feminine. However, both terms came to be used primarily to refer to men, so that the noun senex, which originally meant ‘old person’, came to mean primarily ‘old man’, and a feminine word needed to be added for it to be understood as referring to women, such as mulier senex ‘old woman’.

The Latin word sĕnĭor was used in the late Roman Empire to address the most venerable elders, be they members of the senate or heads of religious communities. Note that the cognate words Eng. senate ~ Sp. senado come from Lat. sĕnātus, which originally was a council of the elders, are also formed with the root sĕn‑ ‘old’ that we just saw, plus a suffix (sĕn‑āt‑us). Eventually, Lat. sĕnĭor came to be used to refer to any man who was considered a superior socially, synonymous with Classical Latin dŏmĭnus, a word that we will explore below. It was common in the ancient languages for a word that meant ‘old’ or ‘older’ to become a term of respect for superiors. Another example is Ancient Greek πρεσβῠ́τερος (presbúteros), which originally also meant ‘older’ but which as a noun was used to refer to ‘a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin’ and ‘in the New Testament, a group that presided over the assemblies or congregations: elder, presbyter’ (Wiktionary). This Ancient Greek word is the source of Sp. presbítero, an archaic word meaning ‘priest’, Eng. priest, as well as the derived word Presbyterian.

1.2. Eng. senior

Sometime after borrowing sir and sire through French, English borrowed the Latin word sĕnĭor again, in the late 13th century, but it borrowed it from written Latin, which explains why it is spelled just like in Latin, namely senior, pronounced [ˈsi.njəɹ] in Modern English. Actually, at first this word was spelled in different ways in Middle English. Besides senior, we find the spellings senyour, seniour, seniore, senyor, senioure, seneour, seigniour, and seignior. This suggests that the word may have come not directly from written Latin but from the French version of this word that Old French borrowed from medieval, Church Latin.

Indeed, Old French itself borrowed it too, from Church Latin, and English copied French, which was dominant over English during this period. French also spelled the word in different ways at first, reflecting how it was pronounced, such as seignur (1080) and the still current spelling seigneur, pronounced [sɛˈɲœʀ] in Modern French. French borrowed this word for instance to refer to God or Jesus Christ, ‘the Lord’, in French, le Seigneur, cf. Sp. el Señor. But French also used the word seigneur to refer to feudal lords or overlords. In both senses, French used the word seigneur very much like Spanish uses señor, as we shall see.

When English borrowed the word senior, it was originally for placing it next to a man’s name when his son had the same name as he, a use that is still current today, as in John (Smith), Senior (abbreviated Sr.). In the early 16th century, Eng. senior started to be used as an adjective to refer to people higher in rank or in service. Uses of that second meaning are still in use today, such as when we talk about a senior officer, a senior class, or a senior year (in school), or when we say She is senior to me in the administration. In addition, the word senior can also be used as a noun in English, as in the sentence  She is a senior (in high school/college). This noun use is derived by ellipsis from a phrase in which senior was an adjective, such as senior student or senior-year student (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.10.5).

So, interestingly, English has two words that are descendants of Lat. sĕnĭor: sir and senior. One came through French, where the word was a patrimonial descendant of the Latin word, and the other came from written, Classical Latin (perhaps indirectly through French). Latin was, of course, the learned language (Sp. lengua culta) of Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond and it was used in a form that was little changed from the way the language was in the classical Roman period. When two words in a language have the same original source but have taken different routes to make it into the language, as in the case of sir and senior, we say that they are cognate doublets (cf. Part I, Chapter 1, §1.5).

1.3. Sp. señor

Spanish has a word that descends from Lat. senior but is not a loanword, but rather a direct descendant of that Latin word, passed on by word of mouth, generation after generation since Roman times. The Spanish word is spelled señor and pronounced [se.ˈɲoɾ], and it is first attested in Old Spanish writings in the year 1077. Words that were transmitted orally through the ages from Latin to Old Spanish, spoken a thousand years ago, are called patrimonial words (Sp. palabras patrimoniales) (cf. Part I, Chapter 1). In other words, Sp. señor is a patrimonial development of Latin senior in a language that, unlike English, is a direct descendant of Latin, just like French, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan are also direct descendants from Latin.

Sp. señor translates as ‘sir’, ‘mister’, or ‘lord’, depending on the context. There is a feminine form of the word señor, namely señora, which developed later, certainly by the 13th century, by addition of the feminine inflection ‑a to the masculine señor. In other words, Sp. señora was formed in Spanish and does not descend from a feminine Latin version of senior. The respective plural forms of these two words are señores and señoras, as expected. As for the ñ in these words, this letter, pronounced [ɲ], is a sound that did not exist in Latin but which developed in several Romance languages. In Spanish, it is the outcome of a Latin double nn, as in the word año ‘year’ from Lat. annus, or an n followed by a semivowel i before another vowel, which is what we find in the Latin word senior as pronounced in Late Latin times (cf. Part I, Chapter 10, §

As we said, the nouns señor and señora have various English translations, depending on the context. Used before a last name, as a title, Sp. señor translates as Mr. (Mr in the UK, without the period, and fully spelled out: mister, which is not very common), pronounced [ˈmɪstəɹ]. In this same context, the feminine form señora translates as the title Mrs., pronounced [ˈmɪsɪz]. Note that this last abbreviation is never spelled out in English, though it originally comes from the word mistress, feminine form of mister, but mistress, pronounced [ˈmɪs.tɹəs], is a different word today, with a different meaning, primarily ‘a woman (other than the man’s wife) who is having a sexual relationship with a married man’ (COED).

The word mister used as a title is nothing but an unstressed variant of the word master that developed around the mid-15th century. The English word master descends from late Old English mægester ‘one having control or authority’, which was a loanword from Latin măgister ‘chief, head, director, teacher’, which was also the source of Sp. maestro ‘teacher, schoolteacher; master (expert); etc.’. English borrowed the word maestro from Italian in the late 18th century with the meaning ‘a distinguished conductor or performer of classical music’ and even ‘a distinguished figure in any sphere’ (COED), which makes Eng. maestro a cognate of Eng. mister and master (triplets!). As for the word mistress, it is an early 14th century loanword from Old French maistresse (Modern French maîtresse [mɛˈtʀɛs]), a feminine wordform created in French from the masculine noun maistre (Mod. Fr. maître [ˈmɛtʀ]), the patrimonial descendant of Lat. măgister (cf. Sp. maestra).

When used as titles, señor and señora can be abbreviated to Sr. and Sra. Note that the abbreviations are capitalized, but the full words are not, e.g., señor García or Sr. García ‘Mr. García’ and señora García or Sra. García ‘Mrs. García’.

When the title plus name is used to talk about people, as opposed to addressing them, the title must be preceded by the definite article: el, la, los, or las, as in Ha llegado el señor García ‘Mr. García has arrived’ or No vimos al señor García ‘We didn’t see Mr. García’. Note also that the words señor and señora are not used as titles before first names (Sp. nombres de pila), only before last names (Sp. apellidos). For honorific titles before first names, Spanish uses don and doña, words derived from Lat. dŏmĭnus ‘master, possessor, ruler, lord, proprietor, owner’ and dŏmĭna ‘mistress, she who rules or commands, especially in a household’ (L&S), terms that we will return to below. In Spanish, only in formal letters can both titles go together, either in the heading or the address, in which case they are always abbreviated (and thus, capitalized), e.g., Sr. D. Juan García or Sra. Dña. Juana García.

In Spanish, señor and señora can be used before other titles, such as ministro/a ‘minister’ or doctor/a ‘doctor’, as in señora ministra and señor doctor. English uses Mr. and Madam in analogous cases, but only in some limited contexts, such as Mr. President, Mr. Chairman, or Madam Secretary, but not *Mr. Doctor or *Mrs. Supervisor, for example.

Without a last name following, señor and señora can be used to call somebody whose name you do not know, something for which English typically uses sir and madam: ¡Señor/a! Se le ha caído algo ‘Sir/Madam!, you dropped something’ Similarly, the words señor and señora are also used to refer to an adult unknown person in a respectful way, the way English uses gentleman and lady, as in Hay un señor (or una señora) esperándote afuera ‘There is a gentleman (or a lady) waiting for you outside’. The English idiomatic collocation ladies and gentlemen translates into Spanish as señoras y señores (a fancier equivalent expression is damas y caballeros). In earlier times, these words were used to address someone in the third person as a sign of deference, as in Puede pasar el señor ‘You may go in’, but such a use is probably archaic in most dialects nowadays. In earlier times, and in some places even today, servants and maids used señor and señora this way too, as in ¿Qué desea la señora? ‘What can I do for you?’.

In even earlier, medieval times, the title señor was given to nobles who possessed land, such as a manor, estate, or domain, called señorío in Spanish, a word that can be translated into English as dominion or lordship. In that sense, señor is equivalent to lord in English.  Thus, one could talk about el señor de Vizcaya ‘the lord of Biscay’, for example, who ruled over el Señorío de Vizcaya ‘the Lordship of Biscay’. And just like the word lord is used by Christians in English to refer to God or Jesus, so is señor in Spanish. In both cases, Christians capitalize the word in question: Sp. Nuestro Señor = Eng. Our Lord, Sp. Ayúdanos, Señor = Help us, Lord. Likewise, señora is used by Christians to refer to the Virgin Mary, much the way Eng. lady is used, cf. Nuestra Señora ‘Our Lady’.

We have seen one Spanish word derived from señor, namely señorío. There are a few others that are not in common use today, such as señoraje, señorear, aseñorar, and señoril. One that is not archaic is señorial, which means ‘stately, majestic, noble’, as well as ‘feudal, lordly, manorial, etc.’. This word is a calque of Fr. seigneurial, which English has also borrowed, in the late 18th century, as seignorial or seigniorial, with the meaning ‘of, relating to, or befitting a seignior : manorial’ (MWC).

In this definition of the English word seignorial we find yet another version of the Latin word sĕnĭor in English, albeit a very rare one, namely seigneur or seignior, pronounced [ˈseɪ̯.njəɹ], borrowed at different times from French to refer to ‘a feudal lord; the lord of a manor’ (COED). In the 1300s, seignior was used in Middle English as synonymous with lord to refer to ‘a person high in rank or authority, a ruler, a feudal superior; the lord of a manor’ (OED), a use that is today obsolete. The form seigneur was introduced into English from French in the late 16th century as a term for ‘a feudal lord; a noble taking his designation from the name of his estate’ (OED). Thus, Eng. seigneur and seignior are two more cognates of the words sir and senior in this language.

1.4. Sp. sénior

Interestingly, in recent times, some dialects of Spanish have borrowed the Latin word sĕnĭor too, but not from Latin or through French, but rather through English. In Spanish, it is spelled sénior (with an accent mark, since it the word has penultimate stress (it is palabra llana) and ends in a consonant (r). It is pronounced [ˈ̯oɾ], with penultimate stress (unlike señor), or at least that is the recommended pronunciation, although some Spanish speakers pronounce it [ˈ̯oɾ], under the influence of English. The recommended plural form for this word is séniores, taking the ‑es plural ending instead of the ‑s ending, as recommended for all words that end in ‑r. Although Sp. sénior is a loanword in only some dialects of Spanish, it is not very recent borrowing. It first appeared in a Spanish dictionary in 1788 and in the Academy’s DRAE in 1803.

As in English, Sp. sénior is used next to (following) the name of a man who has a son with the same name, as in Juan (García) sénior. Note that this is only found in some dialects of Spanish, those that have been most influenced by English in recent times, such as Caribbean Spanish. In other dialects, the word padre is used in these contexts, e.g., Juan García padre ‘Juan García, Senior’.

The Spanish word sénior is also sometimes used with the ‘more experienced’ or ‘older’ sense that Eng. senior has. This second use is most commonly used in sports, as in equipo senior femenino ‘the women’s senior team’, and it is starting to be used in the business word as well, as in the phrase vicepresidente sénior ‘senior vicepresident’. Note that Sp. sénior is strictly a noun and not an adjective. Thus, when used as a modifier in apposition to another noun, it is invariant, not pluralized the way adjectives are, so that we say miembros sénior ‘senior members’, deportistas sénior ‘senior athletes’, or directivos sénior ‘senior managers/executives’.

Sp. sénior is not used to refer to those in their last year of high school or college, however, which is probably the most common use of this word in American English (though other dialects of English do not use it that way). In Spanish, this sense of senior would translate as estudiante del último año, for example. Many other uses of English senior also do not translate as Sp. sénior, even in those dialects that have borrowed this word, since these dialects make a much more limited use of this word than English does. Thus, in the military, senior officer would translate as oficial de alta graduación and in business, senior partner as socio mayoritario.

1.5. Fr. monsieur

Most English speakers are probably familiar with the very common French word monsieur. In French, this word, pronounced [məˈsjø], translates as ‘sir’ but also as the title ‘mister’ (‘Mr.’). We have already seen that the sieur part of this word is derived from a particular form of the Latin word senior in the period in which Latin became Old French in what is today northern France. The obvious sound changes, such as the loss of the consonant n, are the result of word-of-mouth transmission for 1,000 years in what is now northern France. As you can see, French modified Latin words a bit more than Spanish or Italian did. Still, there is something about the form sieur that is unusual, for it was rare for a Latin ‑n‑ to be lost in the middle of a word this way. This can no doubt be attributed to the fact that this word, used as a title and form of address, was often slurred. Note that there are also examples of señor being reduced to seor in some contexts in Spanish writings reflecting colloquial or vulgar speech in the 16th century.

As for the first part of the word monsieur, mon, it is nothing but a first-person possessive adjective, meaning ‘my’. It is ultimately derived from Lat. meum, accusative form of the possessive meus ‘my’, the source of Spanish mi and mío, both of which also mean ‘my’. Thus, monsieur originally meant something like ‘my lord’, equivalent to Sp. mi señor, both expressions in common use in earlier times in these languages too. (By the way, the English word my is cognate with the words Fr. mon and Sp. mi. Eng. my is a patrimonial word that descends from Proto-Germanic *mīnaz ‘my, mine’, which descends from Proto-Indo-European *méynos ‘my, mine’ which is also the ultimate source of Sp. mi and Fr. mon.)

Catholics may recognize a cognate of French monsieur in English, namely the English word monsignor, pronounced [mɒn.ˈsi.njəɹ], which is ‘the title of various senior Roman Catholic posts, such as a prelate or an officer of the papal court’ (COED). The English word monsignor is a loanword from Italian monsignore (mon+signore), which is clearly a cognate of French monsieur. The Spanish equivalent of It. monsignore is monseñor and the French equivalent is monseigneur, which is actually the source of both the Italian and the Spanish words. Fr. monseigneur is formed out of the phrase mon seigneur ‘my lord’, with the same possessive adjective mon ‘my’ as in monsieur plus the learned version of sieur, namely seigneur.[b] Thus, Sp. monseñor is a loanword from Fr. monseigneur, one in which the first part mon was kept as in the original, but the second part was adapted to look like its Spanish cognate señor.

French monsieur is used in some ways like Sp. señor. In letters and envelopes as well as to address men, much like Eng. Mr. and it is equally abbreviated to Mr. (for the female equivalent, see the next section). It is also used to address someone formally, as in the phrase Bonjour, monsieur! ‘Good morning, sir!’ (Note that Spanish could use señor in this context, as ¡Buenos días, señor!, but that use is not very common nowadays, at least not as much as in French.) Fr. monsieur can also be used before some titles, typically followed by the definite article, as in Monsieur le president ‘Mr. President’ (cf. Sp. señor presidente). Just like in the case of Sp. señor, Fr. monsieur can sometimes be used with the sense that in English would translate as gentleman, such as in the expression Mesdames et Messieurs ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ (often expanded to Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles, Messieurs).

1.6. Fr. madame, Eng. madam, dame, Sp. dama, etc.

Parallel to masculine monsieur in French is the feminine word madame, pronounced [maˈdam], a word that is first attested in 1175. As you may have guessed, Fr. madame originally meant ‘my lady’, since it is formed out of a phrase whose parts are ma ‘(feminine) my’ and dame ‘lady’. The feminine possessive ma is derived from Lat. meam, accusative of the feminine possessive mea, feminine form of Lat. meus that we saw in the preceding section. The Spanish cognate of Fr. ma is the possessive mi, which is the same for the masculine and feminine. (Spanish has long possessive adjectives, equivalent to Eng. mine, that do have masculine and feminine forms, namely mío and mía, cf. Fr. mien and mienne.) The plural form of Fr. madame is mesdames [meˈdam], which is formed with the plural form of the first person possessive mes ‘my pl.’ (this possessive wordform is invariant with regards to gender).

So, as we saw, Fr. madame is derived from Fr. dame, a word still in existence, with the meaning ‘lady’ (and ‘queen’ in chess). French dame, which is first attested around the year 1050, comes from a Latin word we mentioned earlier: dŏmĭna ‘mistress of a family, wife; owner, etc.’ which, as we saw, was the feminine form of dŏmĭnus ‘household master, owner, etc.’. Both words are derived from Lat. dŏmus ‘house, home, etc.’, a word that has not been passed on to most Romance languages such as Spanish or French, either directly or indirectly, though the root of this word, dom‑, can be found in a number of borrowed words in English and Spanish, such as Eng. domicile ~ Sp. domicilio, Eng. domestic ~ Sp. doméstico/a, etc.[c]

Fr. dame is thus a cognate of Sp. doña ‘Mrs. (used with first names)’, as well as of dueñafem. owner’. Like its masculine form, French madame is equivalent to the title Mrs., in addition to ‘lady’ or ‘madam’. It is thus used as a title, as in madame Bovary ‘Mrs. Bovary’ or Madame la Ministre, and in greetings, such as Bonjour, madame! ‘Good morning, madam!’.

Lat. dŏmĭna >

Late Latin domna >

Sp. doña, dueña



Fr. dame


Eng. dame, madam; Sp. dama

It. donna


Eng. Donna, prima donna

The French word dame, pronounced [ˈdam], means ‘lady’, just like its Spanish cognate dama, which is a loanword from French, first attested in the 13th century. Originally, Fr. dame was a broader term meaning ‘mistress’ and ‘wife’ in addition to ‘lady’. English also borrowed the word dame from Old French dame in the 13th century, but it never fully replaced the patrimonial English word lady.[d] Eng. dame, pronounced [ˈdeɪ̯m] in modern English, is mostly an archaic term nowadays. Historically it has been used as a term to refer to different types of women, from ‘a woman holding a nonhereditary title conferred by a sovereign in recognition of personal merit or service to the country’ (AHD) (in Britain) to ‘an elderly or mature woman’ (COED). In English, dame is an archaic or historical term nowadays.

English borrowed the word madam from Old French around the year 1300. In Middle English, it was spelled madame, like in French. Eng. madam is pronounced [ˈmæɾəm] (or [ˈmædəm] in British English). The original use of this was as ‘a form of respectful or polite address (substituted for the name) originally used by servants in speaking to their mistress, and by people generally in speaking to a lady of high rank; subsequently used with progressively extended application, and now capable of being (in certain circumstances) employed in addressing a woman of whatever rank or position’ (OED). Today, madam is used as a polite way to address woman, equivalent to the male sir. For this use, the word is pronounced [ˈmæm] and typically spelled ma’am (it rhymes with jam). Otherwise, it is used ‘used at the beginning of a business letter to a woman, when you do not know her name’, as in Dear Madam, as well as ‘to address a woman who has an important official position’, as in Madam President / Ambassador / Secretary, etc. (LDCE). Curiously, the word madam has also been used in English as a noun with the meaning ‘a woman who is in charge of a brothel’ since at least 1871 (LDCE).

By the way, the Latin source of French madame, namely the phrase mea domina, is also the source of Old Italian madonna (equivalent to Standard Italian mia donna). This word was often associated with the Virgin Mary and artistic depictions of her, which is how dictionaries define the English loaned cognate of this word, namely ‘the Virgin Mary’ and ‘an image or figure of the Virgin Mary’ (AHD). English borrowed the word madonna from Italian in the 1580s. This word has been used as a woman’s name as well. Most Americans perhaps think of US entertainer Madonna when they hear this word. This is actually not just an artistic name for this performer, but one that was given her by her parents (it is also the name of her mother, a French Canadian).

The woman’s name Donna in English comes from Italian donna, and thus from Latin dŏmĭna. In Modern Italian, the common noun donna means ‘woman’ and ‘wife’, though earlier it also meant ‘lady’. (The equivalent in Catalan is dona, which also means ‘woman’ and ‘wife’.) English prima donna is a phrase loaned from Italian, where it means ‘first lady’. The term was borrowed into English in 1782 to refer to the ‘the chief female singer in an opera or opera company’ (COED). Fifty years later, the English term acquired a secondary sense ‘a very temperamental and self-important person’ (COED), which is probably the first (or only) meaning that most Americans think of when they hear this word.

[a] Another word containing this root in Spanish senectud, a fancy way to say (synonym of) vejez ‘old age’. This is a loanword from Lat. sĕnectus, which as an adjective meant ‘aged, very old’ and as a noun ‘old age, extreme age, senility’ (L&S). English has borrowed a word related to this one, though it also quite formal or technical and rare. The word is the adjective senescent [səˈnɛsənt], which means ‘becoming old and showing the effects of getting older’ (LDCE), a synonym of ageing. It is a mid-17th century loanword from Lat. sĕnēscēns (acc. sĕnēscēntem), present participle of the verb senēscĕre ‘to grow old’, inchoative form of the verb sĕnēre ‘to be old’, all from the root sĕn‑. English also has the verb senesce [sɪˈnɛs], a technical term in biology that means ‘to deteriorate with age’, said of a living organism (COED). This verb is not really a loan of the Latin verbs we just saw but rather a back-formation of the adjective senescent. Also derived from the adjective senescent in English, in the late 17th century, is the abstract noun senescense [səˈnɛsəns] ‘old age’, a synonym (and paronym) of Sp. senectud.

[b] Catalan also has a cognate of Fr. monsieur, namely mossènyer. Combined with another term, en, derived from Lat. dŏmĭnus, resulted in mosseny’en, which by haplology resulted in mossèn, a common title of respect given to nobles in earlier times and today only used for priests. (The term haplology refers to ‘the omission of one occurrence of a sound or syllable which is repeated within a word’, COED.) Spanish borrowed this word as mosén, now a historical word that the DLE defines as ‘title given to clergymen in the ancient kingdom of Aragon’ and ‘title given to second-class nobles in the ancient kingdom of Aragon’.

[c] Italian has the word duomo, which means ‘cathedral’ or ‘the principal church of a city’, if not a cathedral. This word comes from a very particular use of Lat. domus, namely an ellipsis of the Latin phrase domus ecclesiae, which literally meant ‘house of the church’, a calque of Ancient Greek οἶκος τῆς ἐκκλησίας (oîkos tês ekklēsías). In the 16th century, Middle French borrowed this word as domme or dome with the architectural meaning ‘dome’ (‘a rounded vault forming the roof of a building or structure’, COED). English then borrowed this word from French in the mid-17th century. The source root of Lat. dŏmus has been reconstructed as Proto-Indo-European *dṓm‑, derived from the verbal root *dem‑ meaning ‘to build’.

[d] Eng. lady is a patrimonial Germanic word in English. It descends from Old English hlǽfdíᵹe, originally meaning ‘female head of a household’ but later also ‘a woman to whom homage or obedience was due, such as the wife of a lord or, specifically, the Virgin Mary’ (COED). The literal meaning of O.Eng. hlǽfdíᵹe is ‘bread kneader’ or ‘maid who kneads bread’, from hláf ‘bread’ (source of Eng. loaf, earlier *hlaiƀ) and the root dī̆g- ‘to knead’ (related to Eng. dough). The word lord is cognate with this word since it comes from O.Eng. hláford (earlier hláfweard), literally ‘bread keeper’, from O.Eng. hláf ‘bread’ plus O.Eng. weard ‘keeper, ward’.

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