Q: Help! What is the proper way to make the term maitre d’ plural? Is it maitres d’ or maitre d’s?
A: When a compound word is split into parts, with or without hyphens (like mother-in-law or attorney general), the plural ending traditionally goes on the most important part (mothers-in-law or attorneys general).
But maitre d’ is a special case. The plural of the full version is maîtres d’hôtel, as one would expect, but the plural of the shortened form is maitre d’s, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
Note that the full version has French accents, but the shorter one doesn’t. Also, the last syllable of the abbreviated version is pronounced DEEZ.
The Oxford English Dictionary has references for maître d’hôtel in English texts going back to 1540. The early citations refer to the head domestic or butler or steward of an estate. By the late 19th century, the term was being used to refer to a hotel manager; in the 20th century, it came to mean the manager of a hotel dining room and eventually a headwaiter.
The OED’s first published reference for the clipped maitre d’ (meaning a headwaiter) comes from A House Is Not a Home (1953), Polly Adler’s best-selling memoir about running a bordello in New York.