Music and monarchs: ‘royal’ roots

Yesterday was a big day for royal titles – in some ways glad, in other ways very sad. Queen Elizabeth reached a momentous 90 while Prince shockingly passed away at 57. Both, it turns out, live up to the etymologies of their names, in a manner of speaking.


At 90, Queen Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest-serving monarch, her rule spanning over 63 years. The word queen, however, has been reigning in the English language for much, much longer.

We have evidence of queen in several Old English manuscripts, where the word appears as cwēn, among other forms. French had a significant impact on Middle English, as we see often on this blog; in this case, it influenced the substitution of qu– for cw– to spell [kw].

Queen is very old, but its meaning has been largely constant, long referring to a “female ruler.” However, as the early record indicates, a queen also named a “woman,” especially a “wife,” suggesting a yet original sense.

A variant form, quean, is also cited in Old English (cwene) for “woman.” While queen was elevated in rank in the language, quean was demoted: the latter went on to name a “hussy” or “prostitute.” The record documents this very important distinction – in sound, spelling, and sense – early on.

Queen and quean have widespread Indo-European cognates. Of particular interest is Greek’s γυνή (gyne), “woman,” which English employs in such words as misogyny and gynecology. The Irish bean sídhe, meanwhile, yields banshee, literally “woman of the elves.” Bean is the queen, here. The Proto-Indo-European root of concern is *gwen, “woman.” 

We see various extensions of queen come Middle English. By the late 1300s, a queen was a general term of endearment for an “honorable woman,” while a century later it stood for the “preeminent woman in a group.” As the chess piece, by 1450s, initially the weakest piece before rule changes coronated her. As the card suit, by the late 1500s. Bees, by the early 1600s; men, of course, originally assumed the queen bee was a he. Quean has long disparaged women; queen disparages a “homosexual man” by the 1890s, though anticipated earlier and perhaps influenced by quean. The Washington Post uses drama queen in 1923.

Elizabeth’s biographer Lord Hurd famously christened the Queen as “the Steadfast,” a suitable title, too, for the long and largely consistent etymology of queen.


Fans of Prince will certainly agree with the etymology of the icon’s forename. The word ultimately derives from the Latin princeps, an adjective that literally means “taking the first place,” hence “foremost” or “chief.”  Princeps joins prīmus (“first”) and a root of capere, “to take.” (Princeps then came to the English via French.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Augustus took on the unofficial title princeps when he became emperor of Rome. This was an effort to appear more republican and less regal, as princeps figured in titles such as princeps cīvitātis, “first person of the city.”  

As its Roman record anticipates, prince once wielded yet more power than it already does in modern-day English: a prince was once in fact a “king.” Evidenced in the early 1200s, a prince was more generally a “sovereign ruler” or “person of chief authority,” largely, though not exclusively, male. As the OED explains, prince named the former rulers of Wales’ various states by the end of the 1200s. This started the tradition of titling the heir-apparent of the English monarch as the “Prince of Wales” – and thereby fixing the word to the eldest son of the king or queen, as we now know the word. The OED notes that other European languages followed suit in so narrowing prince.

Other notable princes include the Prince of Peace, applied to Jesus Christ by 1375. His counterpart, the Prince of Darkness, was formerly known as the Prince of this World, which, perhaps curiously, predates Prince of Peace by at least 50 years.

Principle and principal are derived from Latin’s princeps. The former is from Latin’s principium, literally a “first part,” and developed into “fundamental belief” or “foundational basis.” Principals have been bringing naughty students into their offices in public schools since 1827 (as “college president,” much earlier); the Latin principalis, “first in importance,” explains the English term.

While it’s easy to mistake principle and principal, there’s certainly no mistaking that Prince was truly a king of pop music. (Prince and Michael Jackson will just have to hash it out in the heavens.)

m ∫ r ∫ 


9 thoughts on “Music and monarchs: ‘royal’ roots

    1. Legacies they indeed do leave. Artists’ legacy are particularly special and wonderful, as we can continue to interact with them long after their creators have passed. No doubt, we’ll all be dancing to Prince long, long to come.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. There’s a reference in Old English to the “Cwénas” (The Quaines; Medieval Latin. Cayani) as the inhabitants of “Cwén-land” by the “Cwén Sǽ” as relayed to King Alfred by the Norwegian adventurer and traveller Ohthere of Hålogaland. His accounts were included in the Anglo-Saxon version of the compendious history of the world by Orosius:

    “Ohthere spoke of his travels north to the White Sea (Cwén Sǽ), and south to Denmark, describing both journeys in some detail. He also spoke of Sweoland (central Sweden), the Sami people (Finnas), and of two peoples called the Cwénas, living in Cwén-land to the north of the Swedes…”

    The Old English origin for the “Cwénas”, “Cwén-land” and “Cwén Sǽ” names is theorised to be a mistranslation of older references of “Land of Women” (Terra Feminarum) for “Kvenland” an ancient name for an area straddling Northern Finland and Scandinavia.


    1. That’s fascinating. I wonder to what extent the mistranslation, if so, generated various lore about the land. As for the “Kven” in “Kvenland,” any clues to its meaning? I’d guess it’s tribal or topographic.


      1. There’s nothing conclusive only theories to the meaning of “Kven” which are:
        1. Kven is originally a Germanic word from Old Norse “hvein” meaning swampy land.
        2. The literal translation of the “Woman Land” myth present in the 1st century AD recorded by Tacitus.
        3. Kven is a non-Germanic word either from Finnish or one of the Uralic language dialects of Saami.


      2. My money is on #3. We often see simple (that is, obvious) topographical features in place names, as much as we hunger for something more romantic. But I like this urge, if it garbles many an etymology, as it displays man’s urge to make and seek meaning.


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