Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday! Today our visit through the labyrinth of language is in an English garden, circa 1920.
Downton Abbey is a British television series that has caught hold in America as well through PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. It has brilliant scripting, marvelous characterization, stellar acting, historical insight, and gorgeous scenery.
However, at times we, Americans in particular, are a little stumped by the language. After all, there are no countesses in the United States, no footmen these days, and no one I’ve ever met has had to deal with an entail. Rather than make you wonder one more moment, let’s take a look at the language of Downton Abbey.
Abbey. An abbey was a monastery or convent–run by an abbot or abbess. (Abbot derives from Abba–meaning father, like a priest.) However, in the wake of the Church of England breaking from the Roman Catholic Church, many abbeys were dissolved during the reign of Charles VIII. One could imagine a place like Downton Abbey as a monastic estate given over to an aristocrat, which then passed down through the generations.
Entail. Merriam-Webster defines entail as “a restriction especially of lands by limiting the inheritance to the owner’s lineal descendants or to a particular class thereof.” English common law permitted landholders to keep their estate together to be passed through the male line. Another use of the words was having other property entailed to the land to be passed along with the estate. Downton Abbey begins with Lady Mary’s fiancé and future heir of Downton drowning in the sinking of the Titanic. Since the family fortune is entailed to the estate and the daughters cannot inherit, what will happen to the family when Downton passes to an outside male heir?
Livery. A livery is a special uniform worn by a male servant or officer. A servant’s livery was originally bright-colored and flashy, but over time the long black coat seen in Downton Abbey became standard. Interestingly, it appears that at one point the servant’s uniforms might include buttons with the family’s crest.
Earl. Earl is one of the five ranks of inherited titles in the United Kingdom:
Marquess (like Marquis)
An Earl (or count–see below) is the ruler of the county. Thus, the Earl of Grantham has the duty of keeping the village and area lands kept up. Have you heard of Prince Edward of the British royal family? He is officially the Earl of Wessex (as of 1999).
As for the other titled individuals mentioned in Downton Abbey, there was a Duke of Crowborough in the first episode who was considered a possible suitor for Lady Mary, except that he really had eyes for the footman Thomas.
Count/Countess. Count is the continental term for the British Earl. There isn’t a feminine form of Earl, so Countess was used instead. Thus, Lady Cora Grantham is the Countess of Downton Abbey.
Lord/Lady. Lord was a title used for any of top five hereditary titles, as noted above. Thus, a duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron could be addressed as Lord X. Of course, his wife would then be Lady X. Perhaps you’ve heard of real-life lords and poets, Lord Byron (1788-1824) and Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892). And before she became Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer (1961-1997) was Lady Diana, the daughter of Viscount and Viscountess Althorp.
Dowager. Dowager is a widow whose title and/or property comes from her deceased husband. I recall Queen Elizabeth, mother of current queen Elizabeth II, being referred to as the “queen mother” or “dowager queen.” Like Violet Crawley–so amazingly portrayed by Maggie Smith–the dowager queen kept her title while the inheritance passed to her child.
Baronet. I distinctly recall Lady Grantham referring to a baronet. This is not a title of ruling, but rather a distinction of honor awarded by the monarchy. A baronet is a commoner but referred to as “Sir.” At least two characters in Downton Abbey are referred to in this way–Sir Richard Castle and Sir Anthony Strallan–but I don’t know whether they are baronets.
Butler. The word butler derives from bouteleur, meaning bottle or cup-bearer. Thus, the butler is the chief steward of the house, tasked in part with caring for and serving the wine and other beverages. Over time, duties expanded to include responsibility for all supplies (like the “butler’s pantry”) and authority as the head male servant. Indeed, in Downton Abbey Mr. Carson, the butler, manages the wine, dining room, supplies, and oversight of other servants.
Footman. Originally, a footman was a servant who ran ahead of or alongside his master’s carriage, keeping it from tipping and then announcing the master’s arrival. By the time of Downton Abbey (1900s), a footman’s duties might include opening and closing doors, greeting guests, carrying heavy items, cleaning silver or shoes, delivering messages, serving meals, and providing valet service for overnight visitors.
Housemaid. A housemaid cleaned and maintained the house. She was the aristocracy’s Merry Maids service. A housemaid ranked below a lady’s maid–like a valet for the women–and the housekeeper, who was the head female servant. Miss O’Brien and Anna are lady’s maids to Lady Grantham and Lady Mary. Housemaids have included Gwen, Ethel, and Jane.
Valet. A valet is the personal servant of a man. Anyone remember Hobson (John Gielgud) from the movie Arthur (1981)? He was the valet to Arthur (Dudley Moore). In Downton Abbey, the role of taking care of and dressing Lord Grantham is held at different times by Mr. Carson, Mr. Bates, and Mr. Barrow. Matthew Crawley’s valet becomes Mr. Molesley. Nowadays, we mostly hand our car keys to a valet–as in valet parking.
Are you a fan of the show? What other questions do you have about the language of Downton Abbey?