• obeisance •
o-bay-sêns • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)
Meaning: 1. A gesture, such as a bow, that indicates respect. 2. An attitude of respect or homage, deference.
Notes: Here is a word whose meaning has changed significantly over the past century. In the 1913 Webster's dictionary, obeisance is defined as "the act of obeying; dutiful or submissive behavior". It no longer has this meaning at all, so we need to remember that the ending here is -ance and not the -ence we find on obedience. This Good Word is the noun for the adjective obeisant "deferent, respectful" and its adverb obeisantly.
In Play: If your boss doesn't have a dictionary handy, you might suggest, "I can assure you of all the obeisance you deserve from our office." He or she will probably think their dreams have come true. Any gesture of respect will pass muster for obeisance: "When Nick Rofiliac walked up, Fenwick stopped talking and stepped back in obeisance to the man who wrote the ultimate book on frog-gigging."
Word History: As you can see from the suffix, this word comes from Old French obeissance, the noun for obeissant, the present participle of obeir "to obey", itself the source of our verb, obey. French inherited the verb from Latin oboedire "to listen to", made up of ob- "to" + audire "to hear, listen". The Latin verb, of course, is the origin of a series of English borrowings having to do with hearing and listening, including audible, audience, audio-, audition, auditory, and oyez. Did I hear you say, "Oyez?" Oh, yes, I did. This opening cry in English-speaking courts has nothing to do with "yes". It is the plural imperative form of Anglo-Norman French (Middle French) oyer "to hear" and means "hear ye" in that language, the language of English courts for centuries.
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