The Language of Downton Abbey

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.

Highclere Castle (film location for Downton Abbey) by JB + UK_Planet (originally posted to Flickr ), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Fish Footman and the Frog Footman by Sir John Tenniel (“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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

Sources: IMDB – Downton Abbey; The British Monarchy; New York Times – Liveried Servants (1992); Online Etymology Dictionary;; Wikipedia; Entailment & Property Law

27 thoughts on “The Language of Downton Abbey

  1. I’ve never watched the show, but I am mildly curious. So many of my friends like it! I may give it a try when I finish running through the Pretty Little Liars episodes.

  2. I LOVE Downton Abbey. It’s my favorite Masterpiece Theater production in many years. You’ve done a bang-up job on setting down definitions of the various titles and occupations. For we Yanks, it can get a bit muddled sometimes since we don’t have the social classes they have in Britain. Thanks for the tutorial.

  3. Fabulous run-down, Julie. I love the show despite their recent penchant for killing off main characters. It was funny though how they have addressed all of the “complaints” from viewers who thought this season was not as entertaining as the first two. They upped the romantic element between Mary and Matthew, added some new blood by way of the 18 year-old cousin who comes to stay, and gave Edith a fittingly progressive position as a journalist who is courting a relationship with her married (albeit tragically) man.

    Maggie Smith who plays the Dowager Violet (you Freudianly call her “Violent” above which made me LOL) steals the show with her one liner zingers. LOVE her!

    Fun post!

    1. Oh my goodness! How funny that I accidentally typed “Violent.” LOL. (I did correct it. Thanks.)

      I didn’t know there were “complaints” this season. It did seem that this last episode tended toward the melodramatic more than the subtlety for which Downton is known. One of the funniest tweets I saw was someone who said they were moving their viewership over to The Walking Dead, where characters had a better chance of survival.

  4. I love the series and your post. It’s useful when watching to keep all the players straight and the understanding of where such a grand building came from. I do wonder about them killing off people. It does mess with a viewer’s connection to the series and trust in the writers. No one is safe. For that I will watch ‘Following’ with Kevin Bacon.

    1. Thanks, Patti! I didn’t know about all of those distinctions either. It was particularly interesting to see a current list of British monarchy succession with all of the titles listed there.

  5. Very cool, Julie! I am just a few episodes away from finishing season 3 (so no spoilers, people!). Thanks for the clarification – there were definitely some things I didn’t know. One thing I learned that I would add here is that the cook and the housekeeper are always referred to as “Mrs.” whether they are married or not. Hence, Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes.

  6. Wonder Wife and I are huge fans. This series is a treat. I just wished it had more episodes per season. Thanks for shining a spotlight on Downton-speak. Great idea.

  7. Julie, this post was great fun and I wondered if you typed with a Brit accent. 🙂 Having watched all three seasons of Downton Abbey, just before the third began I read the book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, written by the current Lady of the house, Lady Fiona Carnovan. Quite a fascinating and interesting read about Highclere Castle and the various people who have come and gone. I reviewed this on my book blog recently (Found Between the Covers,, in case you’d like to know more about the book.

    1. Loved your post! That sounds so intriguing. In fact, I think perhaps I’ve heard of Lord Carnarvon through Elizabeth Peters’s mysteries, which cover the time of King Tut tomb searching. I had forgotten his involvement! I may need to put that book on my to-be-read list. Thanks for the heads-up!

  8. Great write up Julie. I never knew “entail” had such a meaning. I use it from time-to-time as in “what does writing a post entail?”

    When my daughter was about 5 she discovered the word “butler.” From that point on she’s called me the British Butler because I take her and my wife coffee in bed on the weekends!


  9. I’ve heard so much about this show, I’m going to have to give it a try. I haven’t actually watched TV in a little over a year. I did quite well, but now I’m starting to miss it again. Thanks for the rundown on the words! I’m with Nigel – I never knew “entail” meant that. 🙂

  10. Cool post. My grandmother actually worked in one of these places, in London, early in the twentieth century – a town house, more ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, but the same sub-culture. We have family stories about what it was like, and Downton Abbey pretty well captures it – albeit a bit dramatically. The main advantage for my grandmother was that she and the other household staff could enjoy all the advantages of life in central London – including the flash house and going to all the shows, etc – on servants’ wages.

  11. I searched “Downton Abbey” vocabulary in hopes of finding some of the Dowager’s unusual words. I wish now I had kept a pen and notebook handy while watching. Thank you, however, for your posts.

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