• henchman •
hench-mên • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A loyal trusted assistant or helper. 2. A servile supporter in a criminal activity or undertaking who does the boss's bidding without question.
Notes: Although this word clearly contains historical evidence of a man, the -man in this word is pronounced [mÍn], indicating that it is a suffix and not a regular word. The plural, however, is still henchmen, suggesting that it may not be a suffix. What we have here is a word in the process of becoming a suffix, but not quite there yet. If you like to raise eyebrows, you might try an adjective, henchmanly, as a henchmanly subservience. But don't look for it in the dictionaries.
In Play: The first meaning of today's word isn't used in the US today, but may turn up elsewhere in the English-speaking world: "I have no henchmen I could trust to take my sister to the dance." Sounds a bit odd, though, doesn't it? Much more often this word is used to refer to subordinate criminal accomplices: "Some thug and his henchman held me up for my watch saying, 'Rolex time!' to add insult to injury."
Word History: Today's word goes back to hengestmanni "a groom, horse servant". In Old English hengest meant "horse, stallion"—not too far from Modern German Hengst "stallion". The hengestmanni of 1360 were ordinary grooms, but by the 16th century the royal henchmen were usually young men of rank. By the 18th century the word referred to any attendant, but by the turn of the 19th century the Americans had reduced the meaning to that of a servile assistant in crime. Other words for "stable boy" came to more illustrious ends. Constable goes back to a Latin word meaning "officer of the stable", while our Good Word, marshal goes back to a term meaning "horse servant", based on the same root that now is mare. (Today we must thank Mark Bailey, a loyal and trusted Agoran who is a cornucopia of excellent words like today's, for suggesting this one.)