Mister and Master
Yes, mister and master are related, the one originally being a variant of the other. They, and a number of compounds and some associated terms, all derive from the Latin verb magistrare, which means “subjugate.”
Master, which entered the English language from the Old French verb maistrier, came to also mean “learn all about,” “become adept at,” or “overcome.” (It also applies to creating something from which copies will be made.) The Latin noun magister, meaning “chief” or “teacher,” led to the use of the word—again, its spelling influenced by the Old French form—to mean “one in authority.”
It now pertains to someone who is or was an exemplar of an artistic or scientific field; a ruler, owner, or employer; a victor or one who has control; a male teacher or an expert artisan or worker; one who has earned a master’s degree; or a commander of a merchant vessel or, formerly, a specialist in navigation aboard a naval sailing ship (see Captain vs. Master). It also refers to devices or mechanisms that control others, or to an original from which copies can be made. Finally, it is a title of respect, though little used today.
As an adjective, master means “excellent” or “skilled,” or “dominant” or “predominant,” or pertains to objects from which others are copied. The adjectives masterful and masterly mean “indicative of a master,” though some writers prefer to make a distinction between them so that the former is reserved for the sense of “domineering,” but in prevailing usage they are interchangeable. The adverbial form of the former is masterfully, and masterly also functions as an adverb. The condition of being a master (in the sense of being in control) is mastery.
Compound words in which master is the first element (and in which the word’s function is adjectival) include mastermind, meaning “creative or intellectual organizer” (the word, which at times has a criminal connotation, is also used as a verb in all senses); masterpiece and masterwork, which both describe a crowning creative achievement; and masterstroke, which refers to a clever or otherwise impressive effort or performance.
Compounds in which master is the second element (and in which the word functions as a noun) are more common; among them are headmaster (“head teacher”), postmaster (“head of a post office”), and taskmaster (“overbearing boss”). A grandmaster is someone who has achieved the highest level of skill in chess, though in fiction the term also applies to experts in other pursuits, such as martial arts, and as an open compound it pertains to a leadership role in Freemasonry or in a chivalric order.
Another compound that has developed additional senses is ringmaster; originally, it referred to the master of ceremonies—abbreviated MC, and emcee is an alternative spelling—who introduces circus performers as they enter the ring. Later, by extension, it acquired the sense of anyone who manages or orchestrates a performance or presentation.
Words that retain the middle syllable of the Latin term include magistrate, meaning “judge,” and the adjectival magisterial, which (like its variant, magistral) pertains to the legal context but also has the neutral sense of “authoritative” and the pejorative connotation of “overbearing.” (The similar-sounding majesty is distantly related, from magnus, meaning “strong.”)
Other words derived from magistrare include maestro, from the Italian word for master, referring to music conductors, directors, or composers, and “maître d’,” a truncation of maître d’hôtel, meaning “master of the house” and referring to a restaurant host, as well as mistral, which describes a cold Mediterranean wind.
Mister developed as a variation on the use of master as a title, and, like the original, which it superseded in popular use as society became more egalitarian, it has faded from use. (Mister has also been used as a term of direct address when a man’s name is not known to the speaker.) The female equivalent is mistress, which has served as a title of deference, a designation for a governess or teacher, or a euphemism for “lover”; the dominant sense now is “female lover of a married man.” (Such social titles and their variations and connotations will be detailed in a later post.)
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