The Word Was Butler

| June 7, 2004 |

Last month, we discussed other names for “butlers.” Of equal interest, perhaps, are the variations of the word “butler” itself. There are many more ways in which it can be used, and if these are brought back into use, it will help anchor the profession more firmly into society.

“Butle,” we know of as the verb, but so is the word “butler.” For instance, “Every great house should be butlered (served by a butler).” Or “Would you like to butler today?” meaning “take charge of and serve liquor.” A variant spelling is “buttle,” meaning “to pour a drink” or “do a butler’s work.”

The fairer sex within our ranks has been known as a “butleress” for the last four centuries (and for the record, the spelling of our title used to be “buteler” or “butelere”).

Like the word “stardom,” “butlerdom” means “of the estate or class of profession of butler.”

We even have a couple of adjectives for our profession: “Butlerian,” as in the sentence, “He worked with strict attention to his butlerian duties.”

And thanks to Aldous Huxley, we can consider using the word “butlerish” to mean “characteristic of a butler.” He wrote in 1923, “He moved with a certain pomp, a butlerish gravity.”

“Butler” can be used figuratively, meaning to bring something in the same way as the butler brings the welcome wine. As in the 15th Century example of “humor being someone’s butler,” always serving them with fun.

Along the same line is the phrase, “butler’s grace,” meaning “a drink.” Sample sentence: “Would you care for a butler’s grace?”

The butler used to be the high-ranking official in charge of the importation and supply of wine to the royal table. No big surprise there, but how about “butlerage?” That was the duty every importer of twenty tons or more of wine into England, had to pay the King’s butler. The duty amount? Two tons of wine!

And talking of perks on the job, the “butler’s box” was a box in which card players put a portion of their winnings at Christmas time, to give to the butler. For those who don’t know the custom because it is probably dying out even in England, Boxing Day is called that because the day after Christmas, vendors such as the milkmen and “sanitation engineers” (dustmen) with regular deliveries or pick-ups for households, visit each house with a box, into which homeowners put gratuities for the servicemen’s work over the prior year. So butlers, no doubt, worked out a way they could have their own box, and without having to traipse around the neighborhood to fill it up!

The “butlerage” actually had more than one meaning: it was once used to describe the office of the King’s butler, and thereafter grew to mean the office of any butler. The physical office in which he sat was called the “butlery.”

We refer loosely these days to the butler’s office as the “butler’s pantry,” but it was originally, and still is in many houses, the room where the plate, glass, etc. were kept.

And so we conclude past uses of the word “butler.” Maybe we can resurrect some, and certainly, language being a living beast, we can create new ones. The old ones have centered around the concept of wine and its serving. Maybe with the butler’s duties being so much more these days, we can create new definitions and have them accepted into the common language. If so, would be better coming from butlers doing good works, rather than infamous activities designed to grab the public spotlight (such as “Doing a butler,” which might mean “telling all to the media about the boss for great profit.”).

So, does anyone have any suggested new uses of the word “butler?”

Tags: Butler, Butlerage, Butlerian, different uses of the word, English Butler, The Butler Professional

Category: Blog, Butler training, English Butler, The Butler Professional, The Butler Way

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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