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shameless pleading

Feud / Feudal

A Field Guide to Serfs.

Dear Word Detective: Where do we get the word “feudal” from? The connection with the word “feud” appears too strong to be just coincidence, and I can think of an explanation of sorts, in that the feudal system could only have been supported by a form of organized thuggery by king and noble and church, and I suppose gave the serfs and villeins a life-long enmity, a life-long grudge against the said noble and king and church. Is that anywhere near close? — Partha Sen Sharma.

Um, no. The “feud” meaning “long-standing bitter dispute” is a completely separate word from the “feud” that lies at the heart of “feudal,” “feudalism” and similar words. Your theory is certainly reasonable on its face, and etymological authorities have argued in the past that “feud” in the Hatfield-McCoy sense may owe at least its spelling to the “kings and serfs” kind of “feud.” But apparently not, since the “serfs” sort of “feud” appeared after the “hate your family” kind of “feud.” That “hate” kind of “feud” first appeared in English around 1300 and comes from the Old High German “fehida.” Not surprisingly, this “feud” is etymologically related to our modern word “foe.”

The other sort of “feud” comes from the Latin “feudum” or “feodum,” which also produced our modern English word “fee.” We usually think of “fees” today as the charges we pay for parking violations or the money charged for services by lawyers, doctors, etc., But in the feudal system, a “fee” (also known as a “feud” or “fief”) was an estate granted to a vassal by the lord who owned the land in exchange for the vassal’s pledge of loyalty, service and payment to the lord. “Feudalism” is the name given to this social, political and economic system, which was  common in medieval Europe. “Fee” comes from Germanic roots, and originally meant simply “movable property,” “money” or “livestock.” The ultimate root of “fee,” “feud” and “fief” is probably the Indo-European root “peku,” which meant “cow.” Interestingly, although “fee” in this original “feudal” sense dates back to the early 14th century, the term “feudalism” used to describe the system was actually invented by historians in the 19th century.

I suspect that there are at least a few readers who have mentally flagged your use of  “villeins” in your question as a puzzling typo, but it’s not. A “villein” in feudal society was one of a class of people bound to a lord or a lord’s manor; the term, which comes from the Latin “villa” (country house) was also used to mean simply “a rural dweller” or “peasant.” In the variant form “villain,” the term at first meant “slow-witted country bumpkin,” then someone with depraved morals, then a dishonest person, and finally, in its modern sense, someone who is deeply involved in criminal activity. The word “serf” also comes from Latin, in this case from “servum,” meaning “slave.” Serfs weren’t slaves, exactly, but in practical terms they weren’t far from it.

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