The History of -Ess

August 16, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

-ess (or -esse): from ME -esse < OF < LL -issa < Greek
-Merriam-Webster Online

English borrows words from many languages. One way to identify the origin of a word is to look at the word parts. Today’s blog will outline some details about the suffix -ess (or -esse). When investigating a single morpheme, such as -ess, the dictionary is a good place to start. In this case, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists -ess as a noun suffix which means “female.” In other words, -ess does not mean female by itself, but that when attaching it to a specific noun, that noun becomes gendered. So, instead of steward, we have stewardess, or a female flight attendant, for example. Or instead of host, we have hostess.

The next thing to notice from the dictionary entry is the suffix’s etymology. One of my favorite parts of a dictionary is the line that reads like a math equation. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the -ess suffix comes from Middle English (ME) -esse, which comes from Old French (OF), which comes from Late Latin (LL), and originates in Greek. However, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition offers a slight adjustment. The following note changes Old French to “Anglo-French” in this entry. The note explains their reasoning:

“Incorporating material from major scholarly reference works completed in recent years, the etymologies of late Old and Middle English words borrowed from French now apply the label ‘Anglo-French’ (abbreviated AF) to all medieval French words known to have been used in French documents written in Britain before about 1400. This treatment acknowledges that literate English speakers then were typically bilingual or trilingual readers and writers who cultivated distinctive varieties of Latin and French as well as of English, and that words moved easily from one to another of these three languages. The label ‘Anglo-French’ should not be taken to mean that the etymology is attested exclusively in Anglo-French, for in the great majority of cases the word has a cognate form in the continental northern French of Picardy and Normandy or the French of Paris and its surroundings.”

This note alone demonstrates the complexity involved in tracing etymologies. It is often hard to find the date that a word came into English usage as well as the parameters which define a specific language such as Anglo-French or Old French. And though suffixes were common in Old Engish, documents demonstrate that English borrowed this specific suffix from French about a century after the Norman Conquest.

One of the oldest known usages of -ess in English comes from the Ancrene Wisse, which is a Guide for Anchoresses written in the early 13th century. Since the anchoress tradition no longer exists today in the same form, the term has also fallen out of use. However, the Middle English offers insight into the suffix -ess itself.

-Ess is of particular interest to me because what was once so popular has now become almost an anathema. For example, female TV and radio show hosts now prefer host over hostess, because the latter sounds more like someone throwing a party than an official job title. In other words, hostess runs the risk of belittling or demeaning rather than granting respect. Likewise, stewardesses are now flight attendants and actresses prefer actor. (It is interesting to note that the decline of stewardess has also dropped the usage of steward, while actors and hosts remain unchanged.) notes that: “Nouns in -ess denoting occupation or profession are rapidly disappearing from American English. Airlines now refer to cabin personnel as flight attendants, not stewards and stewardesses. In the arts, authoress, editress, poetess, sculptress, and similar terms are either rejected or discouraged and almost always replaced by author, editor, poet, sculptor. Nouns in -ess designating the holder of public office are hardly ever encountered in modern American usage. Women holding the office of ambassador, mayor, or governor are referred to by those titles rather than by the older, sex-marked ambassadress, mayoress, or governess. (Governess has developed a special sense in relation to childcare; this use is less common in the U.S. than in Britain.) Among other terms almost never used in modern American English are ancestress, directress, instructress, manageress, oratress, postmistress, and proprietress. If the sex of the performer is not relevant to performance of the task or function, the neutral term in -er or -or is now widely used.”

The suffix -ess demonstrates one of the many, many ways in which language is always changing. -Ess seems to capture the instability of this precise juncture in history which combines women’s rights, Me Too movements and political rhetoric. Our desire for precision, accuracy and political correctness adjusts our speech, whether we notice it or not.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of language, or suffixes, I suggest the following resources (in addition to dictionaries, of course!).

  1. The History of English Podcast on suffixes

  2. The Online Etymology Dictionary

  3. The Dictionary of Prefixes and Suffixes by Manik Joshi

  4. The Ancrene Wisse

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From King to Rankine

January 18, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I enjoy rereading some of Dr. King’s remarkable works. As a culture, we are still coming to terms with his life, his death, and his very beautiful words. Personally, his words resonate with me in any number of ways. Foremost, perhaps, is the fact that he calls for honest (and perhaps painful) dialogue. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, is a rational response to eight clergymen who called King’s activities “unwise and untimely.” In this letter, King writes that he cannot respond to all criticism, but he wants to address their particular concerns because he feels that they “are men of genuine good will” and that their “criticisms are sincerely set forth.” This, then, is a necessary prerequisite to any actual dialogue: the open-minded ability to weigh another person’s argument.

This same element of discussion is being embraced throughout America in a number of ways. I recently listened to an OnBeing podcast of a discussion between Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute, and Krista Tippett. My favorite moment of this discussion is perhaps also one of the more uncomfortable moments in which Krista Tippett takes for granted the idea that in the ‘70s or ‘80s American society had moved past race. Claudia Rankine interrupts her and says, “Don’t say ‘surely we were past this.’” She means to say that the more nuanced elements of racism linger in ways that outsiders can hardly imagine and so while some people saw progress, others were still seeing perpetuated injustices like disproportionate incarceration rates. The moment is slightly uncomfortable, but the result is a shared understanding, which to me is the greatest achievement of dialogue. Not all moments will be successful or transcendent, but these small moments work toward a greater good. The transcript of this section reads:

Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But I think there are reasons to feel that, to be nervous. And it’s interesting, because there aren’t that many people, even just given this conversation - there aren’t that many people like Eula [Biss], saying, let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about whiteness. There was actually a moment in that conversation with her where - two white people talking about whiteness, and we both agreed that it was mortifying and embarrassing and messy. Part of it is, you feel like, surely, we were past this. We shouldn’t be having to have this conversation at this advanced age. She talked about how —

Ms. Rankine: Krista, don’t say that. Don’t say, “Surely we were past this.”

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s one reason people feel awkward, because we’re still getting over from this cathartic five years —

Ms. Rankine: No, but you know: mass incarceration — you know what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Rankine: So not “surely” — I mean, those things were always happening.

Ms. Tippett: They were, but I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps. That’s what I mean.

Ms. Rankine: OK, OK.

I appreciate Claudia Rankine’s persistence and care with speech, and also her patience to understand Krista Tippett’s response. I also appreciate Krista Tippett’s ability to explain what she meant and how she meant it. Subjects such as racism are personal and offensive and often instill hateful rhetoric. To me, this conversation demonstrates necessary elements of reason, patience, and open minds.

It is important, perhaps vital, to note the moments when people disagree. As a leader of conversations, I try to take advantage of those awkward moments, which is not always easy (or successful). The conversation between Rankine and Tippett reminded me, once more, of Dr. King’s words. More than anything, he is frustrated by the “appalling silence of good people.” He writes that “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

This conversation deals specifically with elements of race, but dialogue is a necessary aspect of all human relations. I find that the more we practice open-minded listening, the better we will become as a society.

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Celebrate the Old and New

January 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Some members in my family celebrate New Year’s Eve with lutefisk or sauerkraut. Some people celebrate with both. I, however, draw the line at lutefisk. I just cannot stomach it. What seems to me to be a petty difference of taste really bothers others, though. They fear bad karma (or something) when I disrespect the tradition. We turn this into a joke at the dinner table, but in reality, traditions run much of our lives and so I thought it might be worthwhile to better understand what they are and how they function in society.

While tradition is not in the Great Books anthologies per se, Custom and Convention is listed as one of the great ideas. In it, Mortimer Adler offers the following definition convention. He explains:

“In the tradition of the great books, the word ‘convention’ has at least two meanings, in only one of which is it synonomous with ‘custom.’ When ‘convention’ is used to signify habitual social practices, it is, for the most part, interchangeable with ‘custom.’ In this significance, the notion of convention, like that of custom, is an extension of the idea of habit. What habit is in the behavior of the individual, customary or conventional conduct is in the behavior of the social group.

“The other meaning of ‘convention does not connote the habitual social behavior but stresses rather the voluntary as opposed to the instinctive origin of social institutions, arrangements, or practices. … Whatever is conventional about social institutions might have been otherwise, if men had seen fit to invent and adopt different schemes for the organization of their social life. This indicates the connection between the two senses of the word ‘convention,’ for all customs are conventional in origin, and all conventions become customary when perpetuated.”

Obviously, this relates to the idea of New Year’s Eve lutefisk (and all traditions) – in that we celebrate what we find worthwhile in our lives and cultures. What we find worthwhile, however, may arrive through instruction, precedent, example, practice, or law. During the transition into a new year, many lists are compiled such as the greatest music, literature, or entertainment from the previous year. Do these lists merely reflect person opinion, or is it more complicated than that? Adler continues:

“The most familiar of all of the sophistic sayings – the remark attributed to Protagoras that ‘man is the measure of all things’ - is interpreted by both Plato and Aristotle to mean that what men wish to think or do determines for them what is true or right. Man’s will governs his reason, and convention, or the agreement of individual wills, decides what is acceptable to the group.”

In other words, convention drives personal opinion, perhaps even in undetected ways. It may be through trends and media that we receive hints about the health of our daily habits. These sources, though, represent, according to Adler, “an agreement of individual wills.” The line between individual and group, however, is extremely difficult to determine. How large does the group have to be before it becomes a group? What constitutes a fad? Is the mainstream synonymous with either the popular or traditional? Claude Lévi-Strauss adds that:

“Among the most primitive peoples it is not very difficult to obtain a moral justification or a rational explanation for any custom or institution … Even in our own society, table manners, social etiquette, fashions of dress, and many of our moral, political, and religious attitudes are scrupulously observed by everyone, although their real origin and function are not often critically examined.”

Many would argue that traditions arrive from nature or necessity, such as in the form of cleanliness, or human morality, or social preservation. Convention and tradition make for interesting discussions, but as for lutefisk, I am still not sold. In an effort to incorporate new traditions (aka my own) with old, I compromise with rice pudding. However, since it is an attempt to honor the idea of tradition, but is not actually traditional, perhaps I do more harm than good.

To read more about Resolutions, visit:

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Literary Language

July 13, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I am interested in the way(s) in which literary language intersects with language itself. By literary language, I mean language that most often occurs in writing, but not necessarily in everyday speech. A marked difference between the spoken and written word of a culture represents diglossia. In other words, a culture which has a high level of diglossia has evolved language into two distinct functions: written and spoken. The idea of language, then, expands from a system of communication to a variety of expressions specific to a situation, but inappropriate in other situations. Utilizing the wrong language style, then, may lead to misunderstanding. Cicero presents one example of diglossia. He wrote in an elevated, stylized Latin which was not common in everyday rhetoric. Ferdinand de Saussure formalized the idea of language as separate from speech in his structuralist formula. In a nutshell, he claimed that “langue” (which roughly translates to language) represents the totality of imaginative language (including grammar, etc.), whereas “parole” (which roughly translates to speech) is a concrete formulation, such as speech or writing. Langue opens up potential, whereas the latter is an actuality or action. In focusing upon the way a single society uses language, one can develop a better sense of the society itself.

During the Middle Ages, England experienced a number of language changes. Chaucer, for example, had to navigate a tri-literate system of French, Latin and English. Chaucer worked in the court and therefore, dealt in French. His education and writing career demanded the use of Latin. And, of course, he wrote in a vernacular English which had not been done before. His lifestyle at court and working with tariffs enabled Chaucer a rare view of life, one in which he met many people. He reflected the great language changes of his time in his writings. Chaucer incorporated French, Latin and English (both grammatical constructs and words) into his writings. Furthermore, he wrote in dialects at a time when dialects were beginning to disappear. Speech from the north of England altered in different ways than the south. The Canterbury Tales present a diverse set of speakers, which demonstrates his abilities in both observation and skill at characterization. Strictly speaking, he combined both langue (potential speech acts) and parole (actual speech acts) in order to create believable character traits. In order to do this, Chaucer combined and played with rules from common speech styles, including Old English, Latin and French.

Old English accumulated terms from Germanic and Scandinavian languages. As French became the language of nobility, it also filtered into daily life. As universities arose (Oxford and Cambridge among the first around 1200), scholars and scribes began to unify spelling. Simultaneous to spelling and grammar formalization, English began accumulating foreign terms. Chaucer noted these changes in his tales. This marks a transition from Old English to Middle English. Some scholars, however, disliked the palimpsest-like style of Middle English. Alexander Gil, a prominent teacher of the 16th century, reinforced the idea that language should be pure. He published a text on the purity of English, which, ironically, he wrote in Latin. (It is notable that John Milton was one of Gil’s students).

Rarely does everyday speech take note of grammatical rules, however. Languages and dialects flow together altering grammar in unpredictable ways. One of the things I love about Old English is the way that it creates compounds. Often two words were thrown together in a sort of metaphor, which resulted in a single, new term. So, for example, an idea like wīdwegas is actually a combination of two previous terms. It compounds wīde, which means “far” or “far and wide”; and weg, which means “path, road or way.” The combination, wīdwegas, translates to “distant regions.” However, as other languages began filtering in, particularly French, English slowly absorbed a lot of foreign terms into its lexicon. So, while Gil did not appreciate language change, Chaucer did. Chaucer recognized the ways in which words are formed and imagined how the speakers in his tales would actually speak. This trick allowed him to develop excellent and believable characters.

Sometimes, however, a term is considered pretentious and speakers refuse to use it. In the late 15th century, so many terms were being produced that they became known as “inkhorn terms.” In other words, they were something that writers used, but were not necessarily a part of common speech. Inkhorn terms, coined by Thomas Wilson in 1553, often combined Latin or Greek roots with a variety of prefixes and suffixes to form a fancy, and often pretentious sounding new term. (Inkhorn refers to the writer’s inkwell. Therefore, inkhorn words pertained more to the written word than spoken.) There are any number of imaginative and hilarious combinations which have fallen out of use. (Find more links for inkhorn terms at the bottom of this blog). It is interesting, though, that this style of writing has also given us some useful terms such as autograph and meditate.

In short, I still wonder why some terms stay and some terms fade. When do we consider grammar to be proper, or forced, or affected? When is grammar natural or pure? How do we judge speech acts if not by our own rules, and when is it acceptable to break the rules? Does metaphor grant an aura of prestige to any given language (or language act)? Can we mix words from the Urban Dictionary, for example, into scholarly writing and have the desired impact? So while, Saussure claimed that langue was a private act and parole was primarily a social act, I wonder if there is more of an ebb and a flow than we realize.

For more on Chaucer, visit these past blogs:


For more on Language, try these blogs:


For more inkhorn terms, visit:


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