• don •
Pronunciation: dahn • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, Verb
Meaning: 1. (Verb) Put on (clothes). 2. (Noun) A university professor, especially a high-ranking member of the faculty at Oxford or Cambridge University. 3. (Noun) The head of an organized crime ring, a capo in the Mafia.
Notes: As you might have guessed, we are really dealing with distinct words here, though some of our student readers might see a connection between the second and third meanings. (They're right.) Not much may be made from the verb; it has an antonym doff. The noun, however, has been converted to donhood, donlike, even donly, as to speak in a donly manner.
In Play: Let's begin today with a university setting: "Several students watched the don doff his hat and don his robe before leaving for his lecture." But wait a minute: clothing isn't the only thing we may don: "Constance Waring donned an air of wounded pride when she wasn't chosen homecoming queen."
Word History: A hint as to the origin of the verb to don may be seen in its antonym, doff. The verb don is a reduction of the phrase "do on", just as its antonym comes from "do off". These phrases were very popular until the middle of the 17th century, when they began contracting to the single verbs they are today. The noun is an Italian and Spanish reduction of Latin dominum "lord, master". The Spanish version arose as student slang in 17th century England and the Italian was applied to the Mafia in the 1950s. Italian developed a feminine form of the same Latin word, donna "woman, lady", which we see in madonna, a reduction of the phrase mia donna "my lady". (Let us all don a smile reflecting sincere gratitude to Lin Strack, who suggested today's Good Words.)