Being loyal isn’t always legal—except when it comes to etymology.
In written testimony to the Senate, fired FBI director James Comey described an encounter with President Trump in January that Trump needed and expected “loyalty” from Comey. This word loyalty, though, isn’t just at the center of an incredible legal and political drama: It’s at the heart of an etymological one, too.
Loyalty is first evidenced by 1400, when it named “faithfulness to one’s own word or promise.” By the 1530s, at the same time we see the adjective loyal, the word had shifted, thanks to feudalism, towards “faithful allegiance to a sovereign or government.” Loyalty and loyal both broadened from there, characterizing general devotion and dependability by the early 1600s.
The word loyalty is borrowed from the Old French loialté, based on loial or leial, both meaning and related to “legal.” (The ending -té, is a Latin-based noun-forming suffix, which shows up in a great many other English words, such as royalty or safety.) The root is the Latin lēgālis (“legal”), formed on lēx (“law”), and we can easily imagine how the concept of “following the law” expanded to allegiance more generally.
But this is where etymology starts some not-so-loyal double, nay, triple-dealing. Before legal (~1420s) and loyal (~1400), English had leal, from another French form of Latin’s lēgālis. Leal, a Scottish and northern English form attested as early as 1300, is now an archaic word for “honest,” “true,” and, yes, its fellow triplet “loyal.”
As for Latin’s lēx, etymologists point to two possible Proto-Indo-European roots. The first is *leg-, “to collect,” with lēx surmised as a “collection of laws.” The other is *legh-, “to lie or lay,” lēx being “that which is set down,” the very root and concept which yields the English law via Old Norse.
It’s remarkable, in its own way, how the Trump-Comey loyalty matter plays out the origin of loyalty. Trump’s expectation of loyalty to him as a person, as a sovereign, calls up loyalty’s earliest days in English, and yet Comey’s loyalty to the law evokes the word’s yet older roots.