The Grammarphobia Blog

An etiquette lesson

Q: Do you know how the word “etiquette,” which means label in at least three languages (French, Italian, and Spanish), came to mean proper behavior in English?

A: The behavior of the word in those four languages isn’t as different as you imagine. Although the French, Italian, and Spanish versions (étiquette, etichetta, and etiqueta) do indeed mean label, they can also mean proper behavior. And the French étiquette gave us the English word “ticket,” which comes close to meaning label.

Here’s the story. The Old French word estiquette (meaning a soldier’s billet or order for lodgings) evolved into étiquette (meaning label) in modern French. The word came into English, Italian, and Spanish in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In English, it referred initially to correct behavior at court and later to proper social or professional conduct. It’s not certain how a word for a soldier’s billet in Old French and a label in modern French came to mean proper behavior in English (not to mention in French, Italian, and Spanish). Etymologists have offered several possibilities.

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology suggests that a soldier’s billet may have included written instructions for good behavior. And John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that étiquette might have once referred to a small card with written or printed directions on how to behave at court.

I wonder what Miss Manners would make of all this.

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