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shameless pleading

Don

No cannoli, but you can have his onion rings.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word “don” come from? Although in strictly culture-specific contexts (or so I imagine), the word has three very distinct meanings: first, the British university professor; second, the Spanish or Latin American gentleman (although this is an appellate, I suppose, rather than a bona fide English word); and, third, the Indian gangster kingpin. (Apart, that is, from the fourth, and more humdrum, sense of putting on clothes.) So what, if any, is the connection between these three senses? And are these three meanings or senses of the word indeed as strictly restricted to those respective geographies as I think they are? — Partha Sen Sharma.

You left out Don Corleone, from The Godfather, not to mention the real-life “Dapper Don,” the late John Gotti, once head of New York City’s Gambino crime family. Gotti ascended to leadership of the Gambino family by orchestrating the murder of the reigning boss, Paul Castellano, as he left a steakhouse in midtown Manhattan one evening in 1985, shortly before I happened to wander by. No kidding. New York, New York, never a dull moment. Gotti was also known as the “Teflon Don” because of the inability of the cops and courts to make charges “stick” (until they finally did; he died in prison in 2002).

Leaving aside for the moment “don” as a verb meaning “to put on” clothing of some sort, all the other uses of “don” you mention come, ultimately, from the same source. The oldest of the “dons” is “Don” (capitalized) historically used in Spain as a title preceding a man’s given (“first”)  name. This “Don” was originally only applied to the royalty, nobility and high church officials, but in modern times has often been applied to a man (especially an elderly man) who has distinguished himself in some notable way. The feminine form (in Spanish) is “Dona.” “Don” is also used in this way in many former Spanish colonial possessions (Central and Latin America, the Philippines, etc.) as well as in Portugal and Brazil (in the form “Dom,” feminine “Dona”) and Italy (where the feminine is “Donna”). “Dom” and “Don” are also used as titles in the Roman Catholic church, especially in monastic orders (Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk, supposedly invented champagne, and his name is now a glitzy trademark).

The root of all these “Dons” and “Doms” is, as I said, ultimately the same: the Latin noun “dominus,” meaning “lord” or “master.” The earliest use of “Don” in print found so far comes from the early 16th century; for “Dom” in Portugal and Brazil, the early 18th century.

The use of “Don” as an honorific form of address for a Mafia boss is apparently much more recent, dating in print only to the early 1950s, though because the Mafia has always had a strict code of secrecy (“omerta”), the term was almost certainly in use long before then.

Don” in the La Cosa Nostra (“This Thing of Ours,” a Mafia euphemism) sense comes from the southern Italian form of “Don.” For some reason, I was unaware that India has a highly organized gangster presence, but, judging from the newspapers, it has, and the media there use all the Mafia terminology to describe it.

The use of “don” to mean a university professor, usually in Britain (“The reverend dons in Oxford are already alarm’d,” 1726) is a throwback to the days when “Don” was simply a title of respect for a distinguished man.

That leaves “don” as a verb meaning “to put on” something, usually clothing, which dates back to 1567 in modern English (“She donned the garment of a nun,” 1879). The explanation for this “don” is both very simple and a bit strange. In Middle English, one of the many meanings of the verb “to do” was “to put or place,” specifically to put on clothing. So “to do on” a coat was to put it on. “Do on” eventually spawned the contracted form “don,” and the reverse, “do off,” gave us “doff” (“Upon a rising Bank I sat adown, Then doff’d my Shoe,” 1714).

1 comment to Don

  • Cathy

    When I took SCUBA lessons we did an exercise wherein we went to the bottom of the pool and removed all our equipment, surfaced for air then returned to the bottom and put our equipment back on. It was called a “ditch and don” exercise. Everybody knew that “ditch” meant “doff”, although I don’t think many in the class would have known that “doff” meant “ditch”.

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