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,” “attorneys general”).
But maitre d’ is a special case. The plural of the full version is maitres d’hotel, as one would expect, but the plural of the shortened form is maitre d’s, according to standard British and American dictionaries.
The Oxford English Dictionary has references in English texts for maître d’hôtel, an expression borrowed from French, going back to 1540. (In English today, the circumflex is optional and the term is not italicized. We’ve used italics here only because quotation marks might be confusing.)
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 mid-20th century, it came to mean the manager of a hotel dining room and eventually a headwaiter.
The OED says the clipped maitre d’ (for a headwaiter) is an American usage. The dictionary’s first published reference is from an article about a Hollywood restaurant in the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, Feb. 24, 1942:
“Marcel, a plump and smiling Frenchman, is Earl-Carol’s maitre d’. … Marcel guesses he is the only combination psychoanalyst and maitre d’ in the business.”
[Note: We discuss the possessive forms in a later post.]