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Etiquette

Q From Sarah Ingram: I have noticed that the word for a label in several languages (French, Dutch, German and Spanish at least) is etiquette, or a variant of it. How did we come to have such different meanings, and what do these other languages use when they want to talk about the prescribed way of behaving?

A Both senses have the same source, as does etiquette in English. Something similar happened in English, too, though in a disguised way.

The extension of sense first happened in French. It derives from the ancient French estiquette that meant to press, pierce, insert or attach and which may be linked to the Latin stilus, a stylus. It meant a post stuck in the ground that served some purpose or other not fully understood in games, perhaps as a goal. Because the posts often had a sign attached to them, it extended its sense to a label, in a later usage one in a lawyer’s book bag or valise that detailed the papers relating to a trial, including a list of witnesses. This moved further over time to refer to any sort of ticket, such as a price tag, which is one of its meanings in modern French.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the word was used in the court of Philippe the Good, the Duke of Bourgogne, for the schedule of the Duke and his court. By the end of the century, it had come to mean the court ceremonial, particularly at Versailles, and hence a code of polite behaviour in formal situations.

Because French was for so long the formal language of courts and diplomacy throughout Europe, etiquette in this sense spread into other languages. Confusingly, several of them adopted the label sense as well, though the two may be spelled slightly differently.

Like other languages, English borrowed etiquette in the behaviour sense in the eighteenth century. But two centuries earlier we had acquired a word close in sense to label by dropping the initial es from estiquette to make ticket.

By one of those curious cross-fertilisations of language, ticket has been borrowed back into French from English to mean a bus, tram or subway ticket. And the French have also borrowed label for a seal of approval, a label de qualité.

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Last modified: 24 March 2012.