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Marquises and other important people keeping up to the mark

By Anatoly Liberman

The names of titles have curious sources and often become international words. The history of some of them graces student textbooks. Marshal, for instance, is an English borrowing from French, though it came to French from Germanic, where it meant “mare servant” (skalkaz “servant, slave”). Constable meant “the count of the stable.” One of the highest officers in Norwegian courts was skutil-sveinn “cup-servant” (the hyphen in foreign compounds is here given for convenience). As everybody understands, only reliable people could be responsible for the king’s stable, cup, bed, or bottle (from bottle we have butler, not necessarily royal). Later, such words became titles divorced from their original meanings, while other people—if I am allowed to pursue the equine metaphor—continued to curry favor with the high and mighty. Herzog means approximately the same as duke, that is, “leader (of the army).” It may have been an independent Germanic coinage, not a “calque” (translation loan) of some Greek noun.

Titles tend to wander (compare marshal, above) and sometimes get entangled in a way baffling to a modern etymologist. There was an old German word gravo (with long a, which means with the vowel of Modern Engl. spa), the name of various royal administrators. Its continuation, Modern German Graf, sounds familiar to English speakers from landgrave (German Landgraf) and the name Palsgrave (from count palatine; palatine “pertaining to the palace”). Although the origin of gravo is not entirely clear, it need not delay us in this story. Alongside gravo, Old Engl. (ge)refa existed. In Anglo-Saxon times, it was the name of a high official having local jurisdiction. It has survived as reeve and can, with some effort, be recognized in the disguised compound sheriff, that is, shire reeve. (Many people mispronounce the word shire: it rhymes with hire, but as part of place names, for Instance, Cheshire or Yorkshire, it is a homophone of sheer.) In late Old Icelandic we find the title greifi, corresponding to German Graf. It could have been a borrowing of Old Engl. gerefa or, more likely, of some German reflex (continuation) of Old High German gravo. The uncertainty stems from a chance similarity of two unrelated nouns.

The most famous of all marquises: Madame (Marquise) de Pompadour.
The most famous of all marquises: Madame (Marquise) de Pompadour.

Titles may reflect jurisdiction over some territory, as is, from a historical point of view, the case with sheriff. This brings us to the origin of marquis, originally the ruler of a so-called march, or frontier district. Once again the word was taken over by English from French, but its homeland is Germanic. A synonym of marquis is margrave, or to use its obsolete form, markgrave (German Markgraf). Mar(k)grave reminds us of landgrave (German Landgraf). The central element in the story of marquis is mark, the source of French marque and a most important term in the legal system of the speakers of ancient Germanic. It meant “sign,” “boundary,” and, by extension, “district.”

Mark is English. When after a long stay on Romance soil it returned to Middle English, it had the form march. Mark and march, in so far as they mean “boundary,” are synonyms and etymological doublets. The verb march “to constitute a border” has limited currency, but it is a living word in some situations, especially when used about countries and estates. This is exactly where I, at that time an undergraduate, first encountered it. A character in Jane Austen says: “Our estates march.” I needed a dictionary to understand the sentence. Either because, in North America, there have never been estates of quite the British type or because fewer and fewer young people understand rare words, when I cite this usage in my courses on the history of English and German, it is always new to the students and causes surprise. In England it would probably, and in Scotland certainly, have been different.

The Old English for mark was mearc, and it appeared as the first element of numerous components. Historically, march is most familiar with reference to the boundaries between England and Scotland and England and Wales. Old Engl. Merce or Mierce were “people of the march,” or “borderers”; hence Mercia, the Medieval Latin name of their borderland. Its inhabitants were Mercians, and their dialect is called Mercian. Those who lived outside the “mark” were foreigners, aliens, as follows from the alja-markir on a rune stone (alja is related to Engl. else).  The use of the word mark in place names and the names of the people who live in such places is nothing out of the ordinary. The county of Mark (German Die Mark) in Westphalia offers a typical example; compare the Mark of Brandenburg. And there were Marcomanni, an old Germanic tribe, obviously, still other inhabitants of a borderland.

Mark “sign” and mark “border” are two senses of the same word. The Century Dictionary says: “The sense ‘boundary’ is older as recorded, though the sense ‘sign’ seems logically prevalent.” There has been some discussion about the order of those senses, but the opinion, just quoted, seems to carry more conviction, though Hjalmar Falk and Alf Torp, the authors of the great and excellent etymological dictionary of Norwegian, thought differently. Mark “sign” occurs also in the compound landmark.

The most miserable of all marchionesses: a poor abused servant in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop.
The most miserable of all marchionesses: a poor abused servant in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.

An unexpected sense development of the noun mark can be seen in the Scandinavian languages. One need not know any of them to notice the country name Denmark. Old Icelandic mörk (this is modernized spelling) meant “forest.” In present day Scandinavian languages, mark usually means “a piece of land; field,” but “forest” and “uncultivated land” have also been attested. Jacob Grimm believed that “forest” might be the earliest sense of mark, but it was probably not. Rivers, mountains, and wooded areas used to separate and still separate countries. Although a thick forest is a natural boundary, it is curious that Scandinavian had lost the sense so prominent elsewhere. Yet its close cognate turns up in compounds, such as Old Icelandic al-merki “common land held by the community; commons” and landa-merki “a boundary sign” (but landa-mark also existed!). Denmark may have acquired its name after the forests that covered its territory had been largely cleared. In any case, the same Scandinavian noun (mark) can mean both “forest” and “arable land.”

Some words hold great attraction to foreigners. Germanic mark- was borrowed not only by Romance but also by Finnish speakers: in Finnish, markku occurs in place names. Nor was it isolated when it was coined. Its obvious Latin cognate is margo “margin.” The other candidates for relationship with mark are less certain. The word’s ancient root may have meant “to divide.”

Here ends my story of the marquis, “captain of the marches,” a man presiding over a “mark.” As is well-known, his wife or widow is called marchioness.

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 protected]; 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 credits: (1) Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1756. Alte Pinakothek. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The Marchioness 1889 Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke). From “Character Sketches from Charles Dickens, Pourtrayed by Kyd”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. nikita

    At the other end of Europe, (the) “Ukraine” is also a “mark”. But whose (Polish or Russian)?

  2. John Cowan

    George Eliot’s 19C novel Middlemarch is set in an unnamed city somewhere in central England, probably based on Coventry, which is the furthest of all English cities from the coast. In Tolkien the term appears in two contexts: openly in the Riddermark or Mark of the Riders, the Common Speech (= modern English) name of Rohan, the Horse-country in Elvish. As Tom Shippey has said, the Riders of Rohan are the English as they would have been if they had migrated east to the steppe rather than west to Britain. It also appears slightly concealed in Mirkwood, the great forest of The Hobbit. This name appears in the Norse sagas as Myrkviðr; in Tolkien it is probably mostly meant to suggest Modern English murk, being a dark (dense and heavily shadowed) forest, but it is also the boundary between Tolkien’s pseudo-Anglo-Saxons to the west and their pseudo-Gothic relatives in Rhovanion (Elvish for ‘Wilderland’ = ‘the wild country’) to the east.

  3. SHJ

    For the record, “shire” is not necessarily pronounced to rhyme with “sheer” when it’s part of a British county name. For the locals, it depends what county you’re in. And those people who use “received pronunciation” normally pronounce it with a ‘schwa'(as in sofA)or, less often, rhyme it with “hire”, regardless of what county they’re talking about. True, the BBC, ever eager to ape what it believes to be popular speech, nowadays almost habitually uses the “sheer” version; but the BBC is wrong.

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