Dan Chaucer.

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.

Comments

  1. Is that the same Thomas Pyles who wrote a pretty good book on the history of the English language?

  2. CuConnacht says:

    Mario Puzo made a similar mistake in having characters speak of Don Corleone instead of Don Vito.

  3. Indeed, though it’s unclear whether Puzo was reflecting actual Italian-American usage or not. In Italy, of course, it’s “Don Pinco” or “Don Pinco Pallino”, whether you are a crime boss, a priest, a member of the old nobility, or simply a respected old fart, just as in Spain or Portugal or their ex-colonies.

  4. Jeffry House says:

    Was there a feminine in English? Like Daña?

  5. That lends a little comfort to ignorant Americans who use ‘Sir’ with a last name and make Britishers wince.

  6. Sir with the surname was in fact the address to English Catholic priests for a while.

    As an American, I can call any man I don’t know sir, though I don’t know what to use to address women any more: ma’am suggests age, whereas miss suggests subservience. Oh well, there is always Excuse me?

  7. I suggest the gender-neutral, class-neutral, age-neutral Hey, man.

  8. Too familiar (and potentially condescending) in contexts that call for sir.

  9. Even if one pronounces it followed by a smiley emoticon?
    To be exact, [hɛ̝j̞ mæn :)].

  10. The elderly (which for me tends to mean “in his seventies” nowadays) gentleman of the black persuasion who has dropped his papers while walking in front of me might not appreciate such refined irony from a honky.

  11. Again, I’m reminded of The Sopranos – when Chris tries to shop his script in Hollywood he starts off a conversation with Ben Kingsley, “So Kingsley…”, and is corrected, “It’s Sir Ben.” (And to Lauren Bacall: “You were great in The Haves and the Have Nots.”)

    Another common issue with titles is that “the Reverend So-and-So” tends to get truncated to “Reverend So-and-So”, with Reverend being taken as a noun rather than an adjective. The person is thus a reverend.

  12. He might not. I actually hardly ever use “hey, man” in any circumstances, excepting silly LH comments.

  13. Jeffry, the feminine counterpart was “dame.” Supposedly still you address a Dame of the British Empire that way, e.g. Agatha Christie of blessed memory, “Dame Agatha.”

  14. Another variant is dam, used alongside sire for the mother of a four-legged domestic animal.

  15. Sir JCass says:

    Jeffry, the feminine counterpart was “dame.”

    Yes, for example the medieval mystic Dame Julian of Norwich.

    On a side note, I hope future generations don’t get the idea that the “Dan” in “Dan Brown” was a mark of respectful affection for an avowed literary idol.

  16. Phillip Jennings says:

    I suggest another female equivalent for ‘dan’ is ‘damsel’ which, when used at all, is still tied to the damsel’s given name. I somehow intuit that dans are of a younger cohort than sires, just as damsels are younger than dames.

    (I have excellent intuitions, many of which turn out to be wrong.)

  17. While I have no intuitions about the age implications of dan vs sire in medieval English, I would hazard a guess that the former was applicable to commoners (like Dan Geffrey) and clergy (like his monk) at a time when sir/sire was reserved for nobility — and when everybody became sirs, nobody bothered being dans any more. And that dan might well be reserved for heads of households, like dominus all the way back to the Roman Republic.

    Damsel on the other hand is ultimately from a Late Latin diminutive and presumably had implications of youth and dependency, keeping it distinct from dame.

  18. CuConnacht says:

    In the prologue to the Nun’s Priest’s Tale: The Knight addresses the Monk as “good sire”; the Host addresses the Priest as “Sir John”; and Chaucer calls the priest “This sweete preest, this goodly man sir John”.

    And the Host calls the Monk both “Sire Monk” and “Daun Piers”.

  19. And you’d suppose the Knight in particular would maintain a commoner/noble distinction if it was current. Thanks.

  20. Then, of course, there was Dan Dare 🙂

  21. There was certainly Dan Cupid (the chap who hath a garden where women are the flowers and lovers’ laughs and lovers’ tears the sunshine and the showers, according to Basil Hood as tuned by Sir Edward German).

  22. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @John Cowan:

    In Italy, of course, it’s “Don Pinco” or “Don Pinco Pallino”, whether you are a crime boss, a priest, a member of the old nobility, or simply a respected old fart, just as in Spain or Portugal or their ex-colonies.

    Actually, in Spanish don + surname is perfectly acceptable these days:

    Esa mañana el ingeniero Robles, don Robles, como le decían muchos agricultores y ganaderos nicoyanos, vacunó con don Erasmo todo el ganado. (source)

    Of course, it didn’t use to be that way.

  23. Actually, in Spanish don + surname is perfectly acceptable these days:

    Maybe that’s a Costa Rican thing. I don’t hear this among speakers of Mexican Spanish and I don’t think I’ve heard it on Univision or Telemundo. If I have I don’t remember.

    In Italy, of course, it’s “Don Pinco” or “Don Pinco Pallino”, whether you are a crime boss, a priest, a member of the old nobility, or simply a respected old fart, just as in Spain or Portugal or their ex-colonies.

    Boo. Phooey. My grandparents may have been old and respected but they certainly weren’t farts.

  24. Old fart is an idiom, which can be insulting or affectionate depending on who says it and how. Looking around on the Internet suggest that carrozo, viejo pesado, viejo pelmazo are approximate equivalents.

    I note that that don Robles is unique in the text, which everywhere else uses Ing. Robles for him and don with the first or first and family name for everyone else.

  25. January First-of-May says:

    Apparently the French version, Dom, is indeed occasionally used before a last name, as in Dom Pérignon (17th century French monk known for his early contributions to champagne wine production – and, lately, for having a champagne brand named after him).

  26. Pancho says:

    Old fart is an idiom…

    Sorry for my grumpy tone earlier. Yes, I know it’s an idiom but being called an old fart isn’t exactly a complement. I guess my point was that people who are respected enough to be addressed as “don” or “doña” aren’t normally dismissed as old farts either unless they’re difficult people who are called “don” or “doña” mainly because of their money or status, like a bad boss.

    Edited to add:
    I guess it’s a reminder that idioms don’t always travel comfortably across languages. For instance, one of the equivalents given above for “old fart” is “viejo pesado” but you’ll never hear that phrase used affectionately, in my experience.

  27. I frequently call myself an old fart, for what that’s worth.

  28. I’ll freely admit to being hyper-sensitive sometimes.

  29. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Pancho:

    Maybe that’s a Costa Rican thing. I don’t hear this among speakers of Mexican Spanish and I don’t think I’ve heard it on Univision or Telemundo. If I have I don’t remember.

    I have no first-hand knowledge of Mexican Spanish, but I’m not Costa Rican and the usage seems perfectly fine to me. A quick search revealed further examples from Argentina, Chile and Peru before laziness got the better of systematicity:

    Don Niembro, un verdadero adelantado (that being Fernando Niembro; Página/12, Buenos Aires, September 23, 2015)

    Ahora no se si don Rojas va a ser Capaz de poner los puntos en las ies con este plantel y que los astros le hagan caso !. (presumably from a Chilean user, given the topic and location of the forum)

    Don Martínez (103 años): un canto de amor al fútbol, un homenaje a todos los hinchas del mundo (“Admirable: hincha de 103 años alienta al Nacional en la Copa”, El Comercio, Lima, August 12, 2014)

  30. Bill Boyd says:

    My nearly two years in Bolivia put me in contact with locals in La Paz who worked out of the same USAID-funded office as I and also one itinerant jeweler who hailed from Brazil and peddled his wares in La Paz 3-4 times a year.

    The locals, Freddy and Edward, after they got know me, greeted me most mornings as I arrived at the office with “Buen dia, don Bill.” The jeweler, by contrast, after a couple of visits, labeled me “don Boyd [my surname].”

    Is this possibly a Brasilero thing?

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