Deducing the roots of “duke”

Upon their marriage today, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle don’t just become husband and wife. They also become the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Now, I won’t dare untangle the long and complex history of British peerage, but I will track down the origin of two of its titles, duke and duchess.

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You basically can thank this guy, Edward III, for the title of Duke and Duchess of Sussex. That, and French and Latin.

Duke, not of earl

Don’t let that K trick you into thinking duke is of Germanic stock (nor because its use of the noun-forming -dom suffix), for the title is a not-so sovereign word, shall we say.

Duke (duk in Middle English) comes from the French duc and the Latin dux before it, meaning “leader” or “army general.” In Late Latin, dux named a “governor of a province,” in which sense it spread as a title for a “sovereign prince” in Germany and France.

I won’t dare untangle historic European duchies, either, which term for “territory of a duke” is also rooted in Latin’s dux.

The earliest record for duke in English comes in reference to those continental dukes in 1129. The word was used for military leaders, too, in the 1200s. 

In 1337, King Edward III pushed aside the native English earl (“warrior, nobleman,” of Germanic origin) for the French duke when he instituted the hereditary title of nobility, the Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall. He created the Duke of Lancaster in 1351 and ten years later, the Duke of Clarence, which dukedom the Queen also could have conferred on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Duchess is the feminine counterpart to duke, recorded in English by the late 1300s and from the French duchesse, again via Latin’s dux.

Latin’s dux is related to its verb ducere, “to lead, direct, draw,” source of countless English words including conduct, deducedogedouche,  ductile, educationinduce, produce, and seduction. Its Indo-European protoform, *deuk-, also yields the English team, teem, tie, tow, tug, and even the second part of wanton.

Sussex, for its part, is of sturdy Saxon stock—literally. It comes from the Old English Súþseaxe, “South Saxons,” two words, we might say, wedded together.

m ∫ r ∫

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