One of Edmund Spenser’s best-known lines is “Dan Chaucer, well of English undefiled” (or, if you prefer Ye Olde Spellynge, “vndefyled”). It’s a nice line, even if Chaucer’s English was as thoroughly defiled as any other (it’s ye olde rose-colored view of the past), but it never occurred to me to wonder about the “Dan” part until now — Chaucer’s given name was, after all, Geoffrey. It turns out Dan is an archaic title, equivalent to Master or Sir and descended (via Old French dan, nominative dans, danz) from Latin dominus ‘lord.’ There is, however, a problem: Dan, like Sir, was prefixed to the given name, not the surname; here are the first few citations from the OED entry (from 1894):
1303 R. Mannyng Handlyng Synne 73 Dane Phelyp was mayster þat tyme.
1340 Ayenbite 1 Þis boc is dan Michelis of Northgate.
c1386 Chaucer Monk’s Prol. 41 My lorde the Monk quod he.. Wher shal I calle yow my lord daun Iohn, Or daun Thomas, or elles daun Albon? Of what hous be ye?
So why not Dan Geoffrey? Fortunately, Thomas Pyles wrote a short article on this very subject, “Dan Chaucer” (Modern Language Notes 57.6 [June 1942]: 437-439), available through JSTOR; I’ll quote some salient bits. After pointing out that “later in the poem he does use what would seem to be the more orthodox form, i. e., ‘Dan Geffrey’ (vii, vii, 9),” he says:
It seems most likely that Spenser was using the title dan, already old-fashioned, to connote antiquity, dignity, learning, and respectful affection for his avowed literary idol, and that the usage which we should expect to find (by analogy with earlier non-academic and with present-day sir, as well as with earlier dan) was not fixed in his day. […]
There can be little doubt, then, not only that all subsequent “Dan Chaucers” are simply reflections of Spenser’s usage, as has been stated above, but also that all subsequent uses of dan with surname stem from his famous “blunder” (if it may be so called). In the 18th century, dan, though quite obsolete, was apparently well known, thanks to Spenser, and was bestowed by the poets upon their fellows in facetious and somewhat affected manner. Thus, Prior refers to “Dan Pope” (“Alma,” ii, 120), and Pope in turn refers to “our friend, Dan Prior” (Imitations of Horace, Bk. Ii, Sat. vi, line 153). The final stanza of the “Bouts Rimés on Signora Domitilla,” attributed to Swift and usually included among his poems, also contains a reference to “Dan Pope.”
In any event, it seems certain that Spenser’s use of the title, unorthodox though it may be, has established for “Dan Chaucer” a position of affectionate regard in the hierarchy of “dans” second only to that held by “Dan Cupid.” Surely Dan Chaucer (for the writer is quite willing to do his bit in perpetuating so worthy a solecism) would have desired no more exalted station.