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For someone who is a prince, what would you say is the next step in their career advancement?
Historically this kind of thinking has occasionally led to bloodshed but etymologically this shouldn’t be so.
The word prince first appears in the English written record in 1225 and came to English via French. At first though being a prince didn’t mean being in line for the throne.
The etymological meaning of prince is “takes first place” since the word came before it was French from Latin and in Latin had been before that two words primus ceps.
This means that a prince isn’t second in line at all; the prince was the king.
This same development is the reason why the principal of a school is not the second in command, but the overall school manager.
The reason we think of a prince as being the son of a king or queen is that in the late 1200s King Edward I invaded Wales and the Welsh king was killed. Edward I declared his infant son to be the new king of Wales.
The title of the king of Wales was Princips Wallie in Latin which got translated as “Prince of Wales” in English. So although he was nominally king of Wales he still played second fiddle to his dad the King of England.
From there people began to extend the word prince to other males of royal families who were not kings.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.