The last post mentioned that English long ago turned to Old French for grand, which had changed little from the synonymous Latin ancestor grandis that of course also became Spanish grande. Not content with one Romance language’s version of the word, English later borrowed the Spanish cognate, respelling it grandee, which with its -ee ending misleadingly makes the English word look like it had come from French rather than from Spanish.
Here’s what the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica had to say on the subject of grandee:
a title of honour borne by the highest class of the Spanish nobility. It would appear to have been originally assumed by the most important nobles to distinguish them from the mass of the ricos hombres, or great barons of the realm. It was thus, as Selden points out, not a general term denoting a class, but “an additional dignity not only to all dukes, but to some marquesses and condes also” (Titles of Honor, ed. 1672, p. 478). It formerly implied certain privileges; notably that of sitting covered in the royal presence. Until the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, when the power of the territorial nobles was broken, the grandees had also certain more important rights, e.g. freedom from taxation, immunity from arrest save at the king’s express command, and even — in certain cases — the right to renounce their allegiance and make war on the king. Their number and privileges were further restricted by Charles I. (the emperor Charles V.), who reserved to the crown the right to bestow the title. The grandees of Spain were further divided into three classes: (1) those who spoke to the king and received his reply with their heads covered; (2) those who addressed him uncovered, but put on their hats to hear his answer; (3) those who awaited the permission of the king before covering themselves. All grandees were addressed by the king as “my cousin” (mi primo), whereas ordinary nobles were only qualified as “my kinsman” (mi pariente). The title of “grandee,” abolished under King Joseph Bonaparte, was revived in 1834, when by the Estatudo real grandees were given precedence in the Chamber of Peers. The designation is now, however, purely titular, and implies neither privilege nor power.
All that business about speaking to the king with your head covered or uncovered, and getting an answer with your head covered or uncovered, and even more the exemption from taxes and immunity from arrest—those and other privileges make clear why the founders of the United States did away with titles and nobility. Nevertheless, the word grandee, beyond its use as a historical term referring to Spanish and Portuguese history, has persisted in English with the sense of ‘a powerful and important person.’ For example, in History of the Great American Fortunes, Gustavus Myers, writing in 1909, described J.P. Morgan as “a banking and railroad grandee.” And here’s an example from our own times: in the issue of Newsweek dated October 17, 2008, Christian Caryl wrote in his review of a memoir about the Afghanistan war: “A Taliban grandee has a ‘small, constipated smile…'”
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman