One of the main roles in the popular nighttime soap opera Downton Abbey is that of the dowager countess, but many of the program’s viewers have needed to have the meaning of dowager explained to them: ‘a widow who holds a title or property derived from her deceased husband.’ By extension, a dowager can also be ‘an elderly woman of high social station.’ The English word comes from obsolete French douagière, from douagedower,’ which was ‘the property with which a woman is endowed, especially that which a woman brings to a husband in marriage.’ Of course that is now more familiar in English in the form dowry. Both dower and dowry were based on the root of the Old French verb douer, which meant the same as its English descendant endow. Old French douer traces back to Latin dtre, which had come from the noun ds,with stem dt- ‘dowry.’ And finally we see the connection to the basic Latin verb dre ‘to give,’ which is almost unchanged in Spanish dar.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 17:14:05

    Is ‘dour’, as in ‘dour expression’, unrelated?


  2. lensandpensbysally
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 17:59:53

    Always enjoy these posts. Wouldn’t take you for a D.A. fan.


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 20:29:57

    It would seem a contradition in terms to refer to a dowdy dowager, but on the other hand, this tidbit is interesting. I can’t figure out if the doue behind “dowdy” is related, or not.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 11, 2014 @ 22:35:52

      The American Heritage Dictionary traces dowdy to Middle English doude ‘immoral, unattractive, or shabbily dressed woman.’ That word has no known antecedent, so there doesn’t seem to be any connection to verbs having to do with giving.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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