There are few words that carry as much weight in the
English language as ‘lord’. Lord is used to describe both God and Jesus Christ
in the Bible, where the word is used over seven thousand times. The word also has
a myriad temporal meanings – the master, ruler or sovereign of men. The upper
chamber of the Houses of Parliament is still called the House of Lords, and
newly ennobled male peers take lord as part of their title.
So to find the word’s humblest of etymological
origins was a surprise. David Crystal’s new book The
Story of English in 100 Words points out that lord comes from loaf. How did
the word used to denote ultimate sovereignty derive from a lump of bread?
The Oxford English Dictionary’s thorough
history of the word shows its development. It started out in Old English as
hláford – a combination of hláf (bread or loaf) and ward (keeper). The hláford was the keeper of bread, or the head of the household who
had responsibility to feed his servants (those who eat his bread, or hláfǽta (bread eaters). Eventually
shortened to lord (by the 15th century this spelling was common), it
was shorn of its original meaning and elevated in importance.
Other Germanic languages did not follow this
etymological development, but share the root in some of their words. So an old
German word for ‘employer’ is brotherr,
or brot herr – bread-lord (and
similarly archaic to the term ‘master and servant’ in English). In Scandinavaen
languages ‘meat-mother’ means the mistress of servants (matmoder in Swedish, madmoder
in Danish and matmóđir in Icelandic).