Mister and Master

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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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18 thoughts on “Mister and Master”

  1. Hi Maeve
    There is still in our part of the East Midlands, UK, very occasionally heard (and probably dying out), the word ‘master’ used as a synonym for ‘gentleman’, in the context of referring to a third party male, not a close friend, name perhaps not known, but with an element of respect. I have usually heard it from a woman addressing a child, for instance, “Give the envelope to the master.”

    Best wishes


  2. “Finally, it is a title of respect, though little used today.” This is true. Darth Vader knelt before the Emperor of the Galaxy and asked, “What is thy bidding, my Master?”
    Then this brings up the whole subject of the “Jedi Master”, like Yoda, Obi-wan Kenobi, Mace Windu, and Luke Skywalker.

  3. There are the Grandmasters of Science Fiction: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Crichton, Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton (a woman), Frederick Pohl, Fred Saberhagen, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells,…

  4. So, “mistral”, which describes a cold Mediterranean wind. I never knew that, but it is true that a “socorro” is a hot wind from North Africa that blows across the Mediterranean all the way to Spain, France, and Italy. Then “Socorro” became the trademark of a sports car made by Volkswagen, and there is the town of Socorro, New Mexico, well-known in high technology, such as the NRAO.

  5. Yes, socorro is Spanish for aid or help, cf. the English succor. The name of the New Mexico city and county comes from its foundation story that when the Onyate Expedition emerged from the particularly nasty desert in the area they were met there by local Indians with water and food. Nothing to do with North African wind. The VW model is called the Scirocco, which IS named after the wind, though spelled differently (with a C after the initial S).

    Now Moroccco, as if it needs saying, was the trusty sidekick of Secret Squirrel…

  6. “Now Moroccco, as if it needs saying, was the trusty sidekick of Secret Squirrel…”
    Ah, yes, Secret Squirrel and Morocco, and shades of “The Road to Morocco” ! Shades of “Casablanca” and Rick’s American Cafe.
    Are you sure that Moroccco is spelled with the “ccc” and not just with “cc”?
    Are you sure of “Scirocco” and not just “Sirocco” or “Sorocco” or “Socorro”?
    How about Humphrey Bogart as “Secret Squirrel” and Ingrid Bergman as “Morocco”?

  7. Did you know that Humphrey Bogart played so many heinous criminals in the movies that he was sent to the electric chair seven times in them? The article that I read did not mention anything about and hangings, the gas chamber, or the firing squad, or being whipped to death.

  8. It does seem that “master” and “marshal” might be related in some way, or is this just a coincidence? consider Air Marshal, airmarshal, skymarshal, Skymarshal, field marshal, Field Marshal, Federal Marshal, and fire marshal. They are all in ways masters of their domains.

  9. A “Yard Master” or yardmaster is in charge of a railroad yard, a.k.a. “marshalling yard” in European terminology. During WW II, the USAAF, the RAF, and the RCAF spent much effort in bombing “marshalling yards” in France, Austria, Germany, Italy, Belgium, etc., when what they were doing was leveling railroad yards and causing a lot of grief to their yardmasters.
    The goal was to prevent the Nazis and Fascists from moving troops and supplies efficiently, and especially before the amphibious landings at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Normandy, and Marseilles.

  10. A “Harbor Master” or “harbormaster” is the man/ woman in charge of a harbor during times of peace or war, and marshalling the resources of the harbor efficiently. These are channels, cranes, docks, piers, dockworkers, firefighting equipment, fresh water, fuels, highways, law enforcement, maintenance men, railroad headings & tracks, repairmen, sanitation, shipyards, stevedores, trucks, tugboats, vermin control, waste disposal…
    We are well on our way to 101 different things that the harbormaster has to be responsible for.

  11. Don’t forget about “Der Meistersanger von Nuremburg”, either. That is a story about the” master” singer of Nuremburg, and it has been made into operas as the like. Apparently, the Meistersanger was a man with a golden voice.

  12. Going back several centuries, in German “Herr” meant “master”. Then over time, “Herr” came into use for any gentleman, and later on, for almost any man, gentleman or not.
    On the other hand, it does retain elements of great respect in the terms like “Herr Professor”, “Herr Doktor”, “Herr Lehrer”, “Herr Banker”, “Herr Kommandant”, “Herr General”, “Herr Admiral”, “Herr Kapitan”, “Herr Oberst”, “Herr Major”, “Herr Hauptman”, “Herr Leutnant”. I nearly forgot about Herr Kommandant Klink of “Hogan’s Heroes”! “Herr Major” Hochsteader (“Wolfgang” was his first name.)

  13. Hearing it for the first few years in the German way, “Herr Major”, sounded something like “herrmaior” or “herrmayor”. Something to do with the Mayor? No, he was Major Hochsteader of the Gestapo, and the mayor of Hammelburg, Heidelberg, or wherever would have been “Herr Burgermeister” or “Frau Burgermeister”, with umlauts over the “u”.

  14. Military & naval ranks and ratings:
    master sergeant, senior master sergeant, chief master sergeant, chief master petty officer, master diver. Jumpmaster (in the paratroops). Air Marshal, Air Vice Marshal. Field Marshal, Feld Marschall (in German). “Herr Feld Marschall”, laying it on thickly: “master field marshal”! “Herr Grossadmiral”!

  15. Laying the respect on thickly:
    “Großkaufmann” = “big businessman”,
    “Großgeschäftsmann” = “big businessman”,
    “Großgeschäftsfrau” = “big businesswoman”
    but “Herr Großkaufmann”,
    or “Herr Großgeschäftsmann”,
    or “Frau Großgeschäftsfrau”,
    would be piling it on thickly.
    Some of these are heavy words, but my spellchecker does not complain about any of them.

  16. “Herr Präsident”, “Herr Senator”, “Herr Kongressabgeordneter”, “Frau Richterin am Obersten”, “Herr Richter am Obersten”.

  17. When I was a boy, it was common to send or receive a letter addressed to “Master” so-and-so when the addressee or recipient was a boy. “Mister” was reserved for adults.

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