I’d never really thought about the oddness of the term deed poll, ‘British: a deed (as to change one’s name) made and executed by only one party,’ until a Wordorigins contributor brought it up. Dave Wilton‘s answer provides one of those surprising and enjoyable bits of linguistic history that got me interested in linguistics in the first place:

Poll originally meant head, and is commonly used in reference to the counting of heads. It’s either from or cognate with the Dutch pol meaning top or summit.

In the case of deed poll, it comes from the verb meaning to shave (the head). Since this type of change to a deed affects only one party—unlike a transfer of ownership—the document edges would be cut straight. For two-party documents, the cut would be jagged so the two halves could be matched. Deed poll dates to the 16th century and is contrasted with deed indented.

So deed poll has the same structure as battle royal or linguist manqué. Who knew?


  1. And a Happy “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” to all LH readers.

  2. What a great tidbit–deed poll, I mean.

  3. In case you anyone was planning on using “pol” when speaking dutch- it’s hardly ever used. We usually say, well, “top”.
    Not that the subject of summits comes up often around here…

  4. I did!

  5. Compare indenture. See this, from SOED’s entry:
    2 A deed between two or more parties with mutual covenants executed in copies which all have their edges indented for identification; a sealed agreement or contract. LME.

  6. Noetica, on the abolition of slavery in the British Empire a system of ‘indentured labour’ was established in order to replace the slaves in the fields (mostly by contract workers coming from India). I don’t know if it is because of this particular chronology or because of the then harsh conditions of employment, but for some the expression has a connotation of quasi slavery. The slaves were often marked on the shoulder or elsewhere and, as it seems, “the term ‘indenture’ itself came to be used because the skin on which contracts were traditionally written in duplicate were divided with an indented edge, so that each side would fit into the other.” (The expression ‘indentured populations’ has even been used.) Incidentally, ‘indentured labour’ may also bear some resemblance to ‘hard labour’.

  7. Siganus Sutor says

    Poll originally meant head, and is commonly used in reference to the counting of heads.
    In the case of deed poll, it comes from the verb meaning to shave (the head).
    I wonder if the Scots — who were the first “Brits” to pay the Poll Tax introduced by Mrs Thatcher — would laugh their head off while reading this.

  8. What does ‘battle royal’ mean, Steve?

  9. Siganus Sutor says

    And is a “linguist manqué” some kind of “garçon manqué“?

  10. Mark: Battle royal “traditionally refers to a fight involving three or more combatants which is fought until only one fighter remains standing. In recent times the term has been used in a more general sense to refer to any fight involving large numbers of people.”
    Siganus: a “linguist manqué” is someone like me, who studied linguistics but never got the PhD and entered the profession.

  11. But definitely not a “manky linguist”!

  12. I was once talking to my wife’s uncle’s wife, who is Irish and still retains her brogue; I was talking about her husband’s brother, ie. my wife’s father–and I called him an academic manqué.
    “Academic monkey?” she replied indignantly. You have to do the accent to hear it properly. I assured her that I was not insulting him.

  13. Dutch has a cognate for ‘pol’. Cool. ‘Pol’ is British too, with a cognate in Irish ‘cuul’, that means the back of the head, as in ‘cuulmhong’ – ‘mullet hairdo’ (Please don’t ask.) But now you say that their is a cognate in Dutch. Would this be an example of why no one seems to find British loanwords in Anglo-Saxon – they all look native?

  14. Siganus Sutor: The term ‘indentured labour’ is related, believe it or not, to apprenticeship since an apprenticeship agreement was made on indentured paper. A person who had completed his apprenticeship was said to be ‘out of his indentures’.

  15. I gather ‘poll’ is related to pollard, and polling, as in what happens to cattle.

  16. Ian Myles Slater says

    On the issue of Celtic cognates, I would welcome a contribution by a competent Celticist, but I took a little time to look into the question on my own.
    So far as I can determine, *pol, meaning head or top, might have existed in Old English. But only the ancestor of “pool” (small body of water) is actually attested in the texts for the whole period, and for a couple of centuries thereafter. (“Pol,” with a long o; later caught up in a vowel shift. For the curious, “pal,” “stake,” also with a long vowel, the ancestor of “pole,” is attested too, but clearly as a loan-word from Latin palus, and it isn’t part of this picture.)
    The Middle English word “poll,” appears in the fourteenth century, a bit late for a borrowing from Welsh, although probably not impossible, granted a potential source there. But it is regarded, from the documentation of its appearance, as one of many loan-words from Middle Low German, at a time of heavy trade with the Low Countries, and some immigration (including, as it happens, Flemings planted on the Welsh border).
    “Poll,” once adopted, became the immediate source of derived forms, like “pollard,” in later centuries.
    I decline to committ myself on the history of the Welsh example, but use of the resources for the “Dictionary of the Welsh Language” at suggests that the related words now current are borrowings from English since the sixteenth century.
    I came up with nothing new on the Irish side; but I may not know where to look.

  17. Also not unlike attorney general and rhyme royal. Most of these noun-adjective phrases in English that I can think of derive from romance languages.

  18. (indenture) I was familiar with the word in general but not with its origin and was glad to learn that this word came from the “indented” edge left by cutting the contract paper in half with “indentations”. This would have been done in order to prevent falsification and also because the worker and not infrequently the employer also, were illiterate. However, “indentured” contracts did not start with the British shipping workers elsewhere to work on plantations in quasi-slavery, and did not otherwise refer only to apprenticeship contracts (whereby the apprentice lived for several years in the master’s household and learned the trade by helping the master).
    In the early years of the colonization of America many people were brought in as servants or workers through a contract whereby the employer paid for the workers’ passage overseas but the workers had to repay the price of their passage out of their wages – so they ended up working practically for free apart from “room and board”, in many cases for a long period of years, so although they were not legally slaves their working and living conditions were no better than those of slaves engaged in the same occupations. “Indentured labour” may have acquired a connotation of “hard labour” because this was often the type of heavy work that was required, as on plantations but also in other working situations.

  19. “Students: A new indentured class”. This is the title of an article published a few months ago by Jeffrey Williams, an English prof, in The Chronicle of Higher Education and recently reprinted in a Canadian publication. It describes the current plight of university students, faced with increasing tuition fees, having to borrow tens of thousands of dollars which they will be taking years to repay. In this case the students are “indentured” to the banks, which are profiting handsomely from the student loan plan. In particular, in case of financial collapse or bankruptcy of the person receiving the loan, the student loan is still repayable in full, unlike with other kinds of provisions for people in dire financial straits, whereby some of the debt can be cancelled.

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