Job titles from the Middle Ages

Esquire: a knight-wannabe

This title of courtesy for an attorney at law used to mean a shield bearer or a knight's personal attendant. Often, the esquires (or squires) were candidates for knighthood themselves.

Gradually, the name came to apply to any country gentleman who was a substantial landholder, who belonged to a social class just below a knight's. Esquires even served as magistrates in the English courts, which may explain how the title became fashionable among lawyers.

Swashbuckler: showy swordsman

This term for a dashing doer of great deeds came from the noise this swordsman made while in action. "Swash," meaning to dash against, was a word coined in the Middle Ages. A buckler, in the days of knighthood, was a small shield, used to deflect the blows of an adversary.

A swashbuckler could put on quite a noisy show, striking his opponent's buckler with his sword. From this aggressive, loud behavior came the name, which, in time, also suggested a swaggering showoff, with or without a sword.

Spinster: solo worker

This term's original meaning applied to the job of spinning, traditionally a woman's work. In the Middle Ages, married or unmarried women could be spinsters. But as homemakers with families took on more responsibilities, spinning became the occupation of unmarried women, who had more time on their hands.

By the 17th century, historians say, all "professional spinsters" were unmarried. From the 1600s to the 1900s, the title "spinster" was the legal designation for an unmarried woman and was even appended to her name.

SOURCES: Dictionary of Word Origins, by Jordan Almond; The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, by Robert Barnhart; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ivor Evans; Webster's Word Histories; Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris; Dictionary of Word Origins, by John Ayto; The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson; 'Why You Say It,' by Webb Garrison.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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