Just When You Thought You Knew Everything, a Word Like “Seneschal” Pops up

| May 7, 2004 |

Q: I have been reading a science fiction book, Mission Earth, and the author, Mr. Hubbard, uses the terms “major-domo,” “chamberlain,” “seneschal”, as well as “butler” and they all seem to be the same thing. What niceties separate these terms? Is any one of them senior to the other?

A: Well, first of all, it is most surprising to see these terms-of-old applied in a work of science fiction. The answers are quite simple.

“Major domo” is the Spanish/Italian-culture equivalent of the “butler administrator,” supervising the running of the estate for an employer (who can include royalty and nobility). Major domo comes from Latin meaning “Chief in the house,” a term that arose about 500 years ago. Butler, I think we all know, comes from the Latin for “bottle,” referring to the chap who presented the wine to Romans a couple of thousand years ago.

“Seneschal” is the term for the same managerial position 700 years ago, and is no longer in use as a title. It comes from prehistoric German meaning “old” and “servant,” a reflection, possibly, on the loyalty of seneschals and/or the fact that only older servants made it to the giddy heights of seneschal.

“Chamberlain” refers to the same position, too, but only in the household of a monarch or nobility. Chamberlains predate seneschals by a couple of centuries. The word comes from ancient Greek for “vaulted room,” the underlying meaning being “bedchamber attendant.” The chamberlain’s title is “Lord Chamberlain” in royal households, and they remain the senior most members of a queen’s or king’s household.

As for which one of these gentlemen is senior to the other, none is, strictly speaking, as they are all masters of their own domain and cover the same basic functions, albeit on different scales. However, assuming some science fiction were to be applied, with a seneschal rising from his grave and being reincarnated a few hundred years later into our century, and assuming the Lord Chamberlain attended such an event, instead of his many junior staff, then the Lord Chamberlain would definitely be sitting at the head of the table for a formal employee meal, the seneschal to his right, and the major domo or butler to his left, and the American household manager below them—assuming also, that they had compared employers to see which actually outranked the other.

The dinner conversation would no doubt be most intriguing.

As a final note, perhaps we can find encouragement concerning the longevity and demand for our profession, when butlers et al are featured in science fiction stories.

Tags: Butler, chamberlain, Lord Chamberlain, major domo, seneschal, The Butler Professional, When You Know About Everything

Category: Blog, Butler Jobs, Butling, English Butler, The Butler Professional

About the Author (Author Profile)

Steven Ferry is chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers and the author of bestsellers "Butlers & Household Managers 21st Century Professionals" and "Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators." He also trains and consults for the profession around the world.

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