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

To leave a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

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:


To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.