surly

Although English-speaking children are taught in school—or used to be, at any rate—that the way to turn an adjective into an adverb is to add -ly, teachers have much less often pointed out that many English words ending with the -ly suffix are adjectives. Some examples are costly, ghostly, curly, orderly, hilly, oily, friendly, lovely, woollymanly, elderly, and surly. In general such adjectives are made from nouns (the one exception among the examples being lonely): ghostly means ‘having the quality of a ghost,’ hilly describes a terrain with hills in it, etc. That may leave you wondering about surly. It, too, was based on a noun, and a look at the older spelling sirly reveals what noun that was. Originally surly described someone who acted like a sir, particularly the kind of sir described by the Old French cognate seignor (modern French seigneur), meaning ‘a feudal lord.’ Such lords had a reputation, most likely justified, for acting haughty toward people who were not wealthy and powerful, and it was in that sense that those lords came to be called surly. But we’re more egalitarian these days, and it no longer takes a title or an estate to warrant being called surly, the main senses of which are “bad-tempered, unfriendly, sullen, rude.’

The connection to Spanish in all this is of course via the Old French ancestor of sir, seignor, which is easily recognizable as the cognate of Spanish señor. Going farther back, we see that both words ultimately arose from the Latin comparative adjective senior ‘older’ (with a presumed step through Vulgar Latin *seior in the case of sir), so a sir or seignor or señor was originally a man who was old enough, or whose family was old enough, to have appropriated land and money (and often to lord it over other people).

Notice that English has gone back to Latin and borrowed senior as a doublet of sir. In fact we’re dealing with triplets, because English sir is just a variant of sire, an archaic title of respect with which an underling addressed someone of high social status, most often a king.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 17:30:02

    It occurs to me that, while our society retains “David Smith, Sr.” and “David Smith, Jr.”, there’s no feminine equivalent. Well, at least I don’t know of one.

    I suspect a designation as “senior” has to do not only with age, but with inheritance rights that traditionally have been passed down through the males of the family.

    And of course we have this, from Maureen Dowd. Writing about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal she says, “Rather than joining the capital’s proud pantheon of droit du seigneur with the Kennedy brothers, Bill Clinton joined Messrs. Thomas and Packwood in the embarrassing pantheon of maladroit du seigneur.”

    That’s just funny.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 15, 2013 @ 20:32:29

      You raise a good point about the lack of a female parallel to Sr. and Jr., and I think you’re right that it has to do with the superiority that males were believed to have in inheritance and other matters. The phrase maladroit du seigneur is a clever parody of droit du seigneur.

      Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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