Sunday, March 18, 2012

A sovereign answer to a puzzling question

With countries in the throes (if this appears misspelled to you, refer to “Uses and abuses of common expressions”; 3 March 2012) of revolution, dictatorships toppling and the U.S. presidential election around the corner, it’s hardly any wonder that my good friend Ben Freeland has politics on his mind. He asked me recently why sovereign has a g, when it is supposedly derived from the Old French soverain, which, etymologically, has nothing to do with a reign.

I’ll start with the easier part of this two-pronged question—namely that sovereign has nothing to do with a reign. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sovereign has many meanings, including “a free citizen or voter in America” and the now obsolete definitions
  • the mayor or provost of a town
  • a variety of pear
  • the Superior of a monastery or other conventual establishment
  • a husband in relation to his wife
More commonly, sovereign is used to denote “one who has supremacy or rank above, or authority over, others; a superior; a ruler, governor, lord, or master”. I should point out that sovereign is also the name given to gold coins minted in England from the time of Henry VII to Charles I. Such coins paid homage to “the recognized supreme ruler of a people or country under monarchical government; a monarch; a king or queen”. Do monarchs not reign?

So that was the easy part…

Sovereign traces its etymology to Old French (soverain, souverein), from the popular Latin superānus, where the prefix super means “over, above”. And if we assume sovereign means “to reign over”, we discover that reign comes from the Anglo-Norman rengne, reng, reyn; the Anglo-Norman and Old French reigne; and the Old French raigne, raine, reine. The French règne meant “kingdom of Heaven”.

This understanding of the word’s etymology helps us to understand better the variances in its spelling throughout the centuries.

It appears that, even very early on, sovereign was spelled with either a y or a g. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale (1386) contains one of the earliest known uses of the word: “Murmuryng eek is ofte among servauntz, that grucchen whan here soverayns bidden hem to doon leeful thinges.” Consider also Langland’s Piers Plowman (1377): “Þo þat seten atte syde table or with þe souereignes of þe halle.” To further cloud the issue, in a third quotation, from The Anturs of Arthur (c1400), the word is spelled with both a y and a g: “Thus with solance þay semelede,And sew to þe soueraygne.”

Over time, it appears the y was dropped, while the g remained, as in this quotation from Robert Boyle’s An Occasional Reflection (1665): “’Tis the only thing wherein Subjects can punish their Soveraigns.”

The spelling we know today was likely adopted around 1780, as suggested by a quotation in the Mirror: “The Sovereign may be misinformed as to the deservings of those whom he is pleased to honour.”

Derivatives include sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned investment fund. And here I thought SWF referred to Shockwave Flash files. I guess I’m perhaps not as sovereign as I thought. Pretty darn good isn’t half bad, though.


Those interested in learning more can refer to The Story of English, a book by Robert MacNeil, Robert McCrum and William Cran. Twice revised since its original printing in 1986, the book details the development of the English language. Episodes of the nine-part, Emmy-award winning television series by the same name can be seen on YouTube.

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