Another word I’ve learned from Mating (see this post) is merchet, in the words of the OED “A fine paid by a tenant or bondsman to his overlord for the right to give his daughter in marriage”; their etymology:

Origin: Probably a borrowing from Welsh; modelled on a French lexical item. Etymons: Welsh merched, merch.
Etymology: Probably < Old Welsh merched, plural of merch daughter, girl, wife (attested from 12th cent.: see marry v.), perhaps via Anglo-Norman merchet or post-classical Latin mercheta, merchetum, marchettum (from 13th cent. in British sources; late 12th cent. as mercheitum). Compare Welsh gobr merch merchet (14th cent.).

I still have the copy of Branwen ferch Llŷr [Branwen, daughter of Llŷr] we studied in my Middle Welsh class over four decades ago (ferch, i.e. /verχ/, is the lenited form of merch). I can’t remember the last time I had to look up so many words and phrases, English and foreign, when reading a novel in English; I trust no one will be under the misapprehension that this is a complaint. It really is a very good novel, and I’m sorry the end is drawing near.


  1. Merchet was one of the marks of serfdom: free men did not pay it. There were a number of similar payments, childwite for the birth of an illegitimate child and chevage for being AWOL. On a few manors, merchet was required for a son’s marriage as well as a daughter’s.

  2. Childwite! chevage! what great words! (Apparently the latter is etymologically equivalent to “chiefage” and was sometimes spelled that way.)

  3. Jim (another one) says

    “On a few manors, merchet was required for a son’s marriage as well as a daughter’s.”

    The final vestige of this custom is the requirement for enlisted people to get the commander’s permission to marry. It is almost never observed nowadays other than in situations where there is a lot of green card marriage fraud – the Philippines, formerly in Korea – where it serves a real purpose.

  4. I don’t suppose the military calls it “merchet” but I wish they would. And that could give rise to a sweet folk etymology: “The commander’s calling you in for your marriage chat!”

  5. What great words!

    Leyrwite, a payment for loss of virginity. Sake and soke and toll and team, various jurisdictional rights that lords might or might not have. Infangthief, the right to execute your thieving serfs caught “hand-having or back-bearing” the stolen goods, but only if taken on your own land; outfangthief, the same right but applicable to your serf wherever taken or perhaps anyone’s serf taken on your own land (a much rarer right than infangthief). Heriot, the right to seize the best beast when the serf died. And Latin sequela(e), the word used for the ‘offspring’ or ‘litter’ of a serf, the same used for animals.

  6. Jim: the requirement for enlisted people to get the commander’s permission to marry

    I don’t know about current customs and regulations, but two centuries ago, at least in the British army, enlisted men were not allowed to marry since the army would have had to support their wives and children as well (the latter up to about 15 years old). This meant that in a garrison town the men often formed serious relationships with local women but had to abandon them (and any children) when the troops were moved to another location, only to be replaced by a new contingent. Some women therefore had a number of relatively short-term relationships (and possibly children) with members of the various contingents which succeeded each other in the garrison.

    I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada), formerly one of the garrison towns of the far-flung British Empire. I learned these details from two books, one about the lower echelons of society in Victorian Halifax, the other about the extraordinary life of Anna Leonowens, who grew up in barely better circumstances (I think her father was a sergeant), married very young, and ended up as a well-known personality in Halifax after spending some time as governess to the children of the King of Siam.

  7. I seem to remember from my time as a student at Aberystwyth in the 1970s that ‘Merched’ is what it says on the door of the ladies’ toilet in Wales.

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