Word of the Day: queen
All my life long, feminists have claimed that language used to describe women was either nasty or condescending or narrow-minded. I don’t intend here to placate them. You can’t cool a volcano with an ice cube. I simply mean to show how language can turn an ordinary word into a term of high honor; and can do the reverse, applying a term of high honor to ordinary people.
I have in mind that fine old word that names Lucy Van Pelt’s dearest ambition: queen. It’s an Old English word, cwen, and designates royalty. What’s odd is that the word was lost by the typically more conservative German language. In German, the man with the crown on his head is der Koenig (Old English cyning, the c pronounced like k; Modern English king). But the woman with the crown on her head is the king-with-feminine-suffix: die Koenigin (cf. Modern English actor, actress; steward, stewardess). But the Scandinavians retained the word, and here’s the interesting thing. In the back of a Swedish restaurant you’ll see two doors. One of them will read kvinnar: women. In Sweden, that’s just the word for woman: kvinna.
Yet sometimes the honorary comes first, and is graciously applied to everybody. In Latin, the male head of the household (domus) was called dominus (cf. English dominate), while his wife was called domina. Virtuous Roman women were held in high regard; and you didn’t want to cross the domina. Italian has pretty much lost dominus: a man is called uomo, from Latin homo, designating a human being, usually but not always without regard to sex or age. But it has preserved domina: every woman in Italian is una donna. Well, we used to refer to “ladies” and “gentlemen,” but that’s hard to do when you’re looking at slovenly shambling guys wearing their pants around their thighs, or slinky skanky girls with tattoos of snakes on their belly fat. Madonna mia!
Which came first, the ordinary or the honorary? In this case, probably the ordinary. Grimm’s Law instructs us to look for Greek or Latin g when we find Germanic c (k), and sure enough, Greek gyne corresponds exactly with Old English cwen (the Scandinavians turned the w into a v, or we’d be calling the football team the Minnesota Wikings). But there is a dusty old word in English that seems to have gone down the other track, all the way down, and then fallen into a linguistic slum: quean, meaning harlot. Mary Quean of Scots? I don’t know.