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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Of valets and varlets

On Sunday, we North Americans finally got our new fix of Downton Abbey, and the episode seemed to be all about valets. Would the Earl of Grantham's scheming valet Thomas undermine Alfred the tall new guy as valet to Matthew? Would Matthew's current valet Molesley get left behind as butler to the indomitable Isobel Crawley? Would, shock horror, Matthew give up having a valet at all? Would the former valet Mr. Bates have his innocence proved and be released from jail?

But the most burning valet-related question of all for North Americans was surely: "Why don't these people know how to pronounce the word 'valet'? What's with this 'VAL it' nonsense?"

"VAL it" is indeed the first pronunciation still given in British dictionaries for this word, whereas on this side of the pond we say "VAL ay".

"Valet" came into French from the popular Latin vassellittus, a diminutive of vassus (servant), itself derived from a Celtic word and also at the origin of our word "vassal". In French, a valet was originally a young gentleman who was not yet a knight. By the 12th century, the word was already being used to mean a manservant, the only sense it had when it was borrowed into English in the 1300s. Judging by many spellings with two final t's, the final consonant seems to have been pronounced then, but in Scotland a t-less pronunciation, "vallie", also existed.

As far as I can gather, the word "valet" would have been familiar to Americans only through reading about Europe. Then valet parking was invented in the mid 1950s. When English has borrowed words from French since the Renaissance rather than before, the French pronunciation is usually preferred, especially in contexts implying prestige. I think that is why the more French-sounding "VAL ay" is used in North America for this word.

Another variant of the Old French valet was varlet. This underwent the same semantic evolution as "knave", which started out meaning "boy", then became "male servant" and eventually came to be a term of opprobrium, so that by the 1500s "varlet" meant, as the OED inimitably puts it:

A person of a low, mean, or knavish disposition; a knave, rogue, rascal.

Perhaps 15th-century valets/varlets were as nefarious as the evil Thomas at Downton!


1 comment:

  1. "the French pronunciation is usually preferred, especially in contexts implying prestige." Hence the ridiculous use of ENTREE in American menus to mean the MAIN course, while Quebec it is more sensibly used for the appetizer. Also saute rather than plain old fry, haricots verts instead of simple green beans etc in cooking.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.