Q: I cannot help feeling that the word “page,” meaning a manservant, has something to do with the word “pageant,” which you discussed recently. Surely it was worth a mention.
A: Despite the similarity in appearance, the word “page,” in its servant sense, isn’t etymologically related to “pageant.” In fact, this “page” isn’t ultimately related to the “page” in a book either, though English borrowed both from the same French term.
The noun “page,” used in the sense you’re asking about, was adopted from French in the late 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle French, page meant a servant as well as one side of a sheet of paper.
The French acquired the servant sense of page (perhaps by way of Italian) from pagius, medieval Latin for a servant, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Here the trail turns lukewarm.
Chamber’s says pagius “perhaps ultimately” comes from paidós, classical Greek for a child. The OED says only that such an etymology has been “proposed.”
But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says pagius is “generally assumed” to come from paidós, source of such English words as “encyclopedia,” “pediatric,” “pedagogue,” “pedophile,” and “pederast.”
The paper sense of the French word page showed up in English around 1485 as page references in the correspondence of the Celys, an English merchant family.
The OED says this sense of the French page is derived from pāgina, classical Latin for a written page or a piece of writing.
The word “pageant,” as we wrote on our blog, referred to a mystery play, a drama depicting biblical events, when it showed up in the late 1300s or early 1400s. It comes from multiple sources in French and Latin, none of them related to the servant sense of “page.”
The OED’s earliest example for “page” used in its servant sense is from The Lay of Havelock the Dane (circa 1280): “Was þer-inne no page so lite Þat euere wolde ale bite” (“Was therein no page so little that ever would ale bite”).
In the late 1300s, it came to mean a servant in a royal or noble household. And around 1400, it came to mean a youth in training for knighthood, ranking just below a squire.
The OED’s earliest citation for a knight’s “page” is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance: “Fyue hundreþ þousynde Kniȝttes to armes … Wiþouten pages and squyers” (“Five hundred thousand knights in arms … not counting pages and squires”).
Finally, the American sense of a “page” as a young person who runs errands in a court or a legislative body showed up in the mid-19th century.
The first OED example is from the Feb. 18, 1840, issue of the Boston Evening Transcript: “A page took them to the Clerk—the Clerk handed them to the Speaker.”