As most of my friends can attest, I’m a rather curious person. This might be strange for some people, as I’m known to pull out my blackberry looking for an answer for a question no one knows exactly how to answer. As a consequence, today I’m looking up sheriff, just…well…because!
So, the argument started with me wondering if the word had any relation with “sharif“, an “Arabic title of respect (…) Sharifs originally were heads of prominent families in a town.” (in Enciclopaedia Britannica) My husband kindly reminded me that the word was already used in Medieval England (e.g., the famous Sheriff of Nottingham), and so the search began.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (28 Dec. 2010), the meaning of sheriff is:
“1 : an elected official who is in charge of enforcing the law in a county or town of the U.S.
2 Brit : the highest official in a county or shire in England or Wales who represents the king or queen and who attends ceremonies and has legal duties —called also High Sheriff
3 : the most important judge in a county or district in Scotland.”
It’s etymology comes from the Middle English shirreve, sherreve, shiref, sheref, shreve, and from Old English scrgerfa (“a sheriff in England before the Norman Conquest”), from scr district, shire, and +gerfa reeve.
The decomposition of the word leaves us with the two words (shire+reeve):
Shire: “1 -s : an administrative subdivision of land: as a : a district made up of a number of smaller districts and ruled by an alderman and a sheriff in England before the Norman Conquest b : a county in the British Isles especially in England c : an administrative subdivision of colonial America d : a country area in Australia that has been incorporated for local government and embraces a tract of agricultural or grazing territory including one or more small towns and villages.” (here I’m obviously not referring to the breed of horses eheh)
Reeve: “1 : a local administrative agent of the king in Anglo-Saxon times having a position and function similar to that of the bailiff under the Norman kings; 2 : an officer on a medieval English manor originally chosen by the villeins to represent their interests but later becoming the lord’s agent associated with the bailiff and responsible for maintaining order and overseeing the discharge of feudal obligations (as rents); 3 a : the chief magistrate of a town; b : an official charged with the enforcement of local regulations in various English and American communities”
The etymology of reeve itself is interesting, as it comes from Middle English reve, ireve, from the Old English gerfa (GE- (perfective, associative, and collective prefix) + -REFA (from Old English -rf number, array, akin to Old High Germanruova number, array). I’m still trying to figure out how they got local administrative from these words. But then again, reeve seems to always appear either as a suffix (e.g., sheriff, hogreeve) or as an auxiliary word (e.g., residential reeve, field reeve).
Sorry if I’m missing any subtleties of the language…any corrections and thoughts are welcome! 😀
My two favorite resources when I’m stuck: