By Anatoly Liberman
Once again we are torn between Rome, the Romance-speaking world, and England. The word baron appeared in English texts in 1200, and it probably became current shortly before that time, for such an important military title would hardly have escaped written tradition for too long. One incontestable thing is that baron arose in Old French and through Anglo-French reached Middle English. At present, baron is the lowest rank in hereditary peerage, but “[t]he original meaning of baron in feudal times was one of a class of tenants holding his lands by military service from the king, or other superior lord. The term was soon restricted to king’s barons who were summoned by writ to the council. The practice grew up that those once summoned had a right to attend, and the honour and privilege became hereditary” (The Universal Dictionary of the English Language by Henry Cecil Wyld). The question is how this title happened to get the meaning recorded in Old French.
Early lexicographers were bold people: they formulated hypotheses and fearlessly proclaimed them, for nothing worse could happen to them than running afoul of a different politely formulated conjecture: no ridicule, no rebuke for violating phonetic laws (those had not yet been discovered) or missing an important publication (the few main books on the subject were widely known and always consulted). A look at the guesses by our distant predecessors is not devoid of interest, for some of them had a long life and are still with us.
The syllable bar occurs in many languages and not infrequently has a meaning that fits, at least to a certain extent, the meaning of baron. The first lexicographers noticed Hebrew bar “son,” recognized today even by those who have no knowledge of any Semitic language from bar mitzvah. Since for some time people traced all words to Hebrew, the alleged language of Paradise before Adam and Eve were banished from it, the tie between bar and baron seemed obvious. Then there was Old Irish bar “wise man, sage; leader; overseer.” For some reason, it frequently occurred in glossaries but did not turn up in any text, literary or legal. Such words occur in many old languages and look like learned concoctions. Still this bar, whatever its origin, has been attested, so probably it is not a figment, as James Murray suspected. Charles Mackay, whose etymologies are fanciful but forms invariably correct, mentioned the obsolete Irish Gaelic bar “a man, a learned man” and baran “a great man.” He hardly knew them from living speech.
Then there is Old Engl. beorn “man; hero; warrior,” which may be the same word as one of the Old Germanic names of the bear (this is uncertain; yet the alternative derivation from the verb bear is less likely). Bestowing the names of ferocious animals (bears and boars, for instance) on doughty fighters and esteemed chiefs was common practice. Old Germanic poetry is full of relevant examples. Next to it we find Old Engl. bearn “child, bairn,” an unquestionable cognate of the verb beran “to bear.” Beorn and bearn suggest a Germanic origin of baron, even though the details of the development are unclear.
We can now turn to Latin vir “man, husband,” often proposed as the source (etymon) of baron. Vir has respectable cognates in Old English and Gothic (nearly the same form and the same meaning). The alternation v ~ b poses problems, but they are not insurmountable. It is the suffix (or what looks like a suffix) -on that defies an explanation if we begin with vir. However, some of the best etymologists of the first half of the nineteenth century ignored the “suffix” and had no doubts about vir being the etymon of baron. Vir is not the only v-word that surfaced in the etymological explanations of baron. Latin varus “knock-kneed, bow-legged” and vara “a forked pole,” a cognate of varus, have also been referred to. The connection between them and baron is tenuous at best.
More promising is the Latin noun baro (genitive baronis, accusative baronem), which looks like a possible source of baron. However, the history, and not only the etymology, of baro is another hornets’ nest. The most baffling fact is that there seemingly were two Latin words baro. One had length on both vowels and is usually glossed as “fool; simpleton.” This is the meaning Cicero and at least one more author knew. The other baro, which is given in the most authoritative dictionaries of Latin with a short root vowel, meant “a free man” (that is, not a serf), but it emerged late, in a law code known as Lex Salica “Salian Law.” The code was put together at the beginning of the sixth century, in the reign of Clovis I, though no manuscripts antedating the eighth century have come down to us. The code regulated the life of the Salian Franks. The etymology of the name Salian is debatable and should not concern us. We only need to know that the Salian Franks were different from the so-called Ripuarian Franks and that later the same laws governed all of them. The Franks were a conglomeration of Germanic tribes.
Although Lex Salica was written in Latin, the word baro could be a Latinized German word. Untranslatable native terms regularly appeared in medieval Latin texts unchanged (occasionally -us would be added to them, and Alemannic barus has been recorded). If the word is German, we find ourselves on familiar ground (compare bearn and beorn mentioned above), but if it is Latin, we have to decide whether it has anything to do with baro “fool; simpleton” and ideally account for its origin. Baro “fool” has a well-known continuation in the Modern Romance languages. Italian barone means both “baron” and “rogue,” and many similar-sounding nouns with various suffixes have related meanings, “urchin” among them. “Simpleton,” let alone “fool,” could not develop into “a king’s man” or something similar. Most modern dictionaries state that baro1 and baro2 have nothing to do with each other, but the German linguist Franz Settegast thought differently and made an attempt to overthrow this conclusion.
Settegast showed that in some Latin books baro designated a strong (muscular) or an unpolished man, a hillbilly, a man from the boondocks, as we might say. His findings have never been refuted, but the question remains which sense is original and which is derived, that is, whether the path was from “fool” to “a strong man” or from “a strong man” to “fool.” Also, some etymologists say that Italian barone “rogue” and barone “baron” are different words (homonyms) and cite plausible sources for both, while others try to connect them. As could be expected, the definitive answer does not exist, but the situation may not be quite hopeless, and next week I’ll say what I think about it.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.
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Image credit: Manuscrit de la loi salique datant de 793, bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Saint-Gall. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.