• damsel •
dæm-zêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A young unmarried woman, a maiden.
Notes: We don't meet this word in writings or conversation these days except in the idiomatic old-fashioned expression 'damsel in distress', meaning "a woman in trouble". The abstract noun damselhood and adjective damselish have been tried but didn't stick.
In Play: The expression 'damsel in distress' is the most frequent usage of today's word. Since it is old-fashioned, it is used most often humorously: "Mollie Spancer-Downe is a damsel that causes her own distress." It occurs more frequently in historical contexts: "The sailor watched in horror as the beautiful woman morphed from a pretty young damsel into an ugly hag, as she removed her ear, leg, teeth and one eye."
Word History: Today's Good Word started out as a copy of dameisele, which Old French had reduced from medieval Latin domnicella or domicella, the diminutive of domina "mistress, lady of the house", feminine of dominus "lord, master of the house". Domina went on to become dame in French, donna in Italian, and dama in Spanish, all referring to ladies. Domain and domination are variations on this word borrowed from Latin. Domina is a feminine personal noun based on domus "house", which Latin acquired from PIE dem-/dom- "house(hold)", source also of Greek doma "house". Despot originated as something like dems-pot "house-master". The pot is the same word that we see in potent. The PIE word ended up in Old English as timber "building, structure", which by Middle English meant "building material, trees suitable for building". We find its remains in German Zimmer "room", too. (Now let's thank our old friend and frequent contributor Albert Skiles for suggesting yet another intriguing Good Word.)
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