Sir and Sar

This letter was addressed to Isaac E. Mozeson, author of The Word, The Dictionary that Reveals the Hebrew Source of English, SPI Books, New York, 2000. The following has major editorial changes since I last mailed it to him.


I was fascinated by your suggestion that the Hebrew word sar was somehow related to the words we now know as sir, sire, and surly.

A simple vowel transformation leads directly from sar to sir. Of course, many linguists may object to such simple phonetic change.

But you said:

SIR, SIRE and SURLY are traced to French messieur, Old French sieur (a master) and somehow on to Latin senior and the IE "root" sen (old - see SENILE").

If this is true, the word sir does not come from sar but from an IE root sen.  Indeed, this is the usual idea of how the sir words came to us. Everyone seems to accept that the Old French sieur is the path from the Latin senior, with a loss of the "n" in the transmission. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the Old Frence sire is from an earlier *sieire which is from a Latin *seior, and that, in turn, is from a Latin senior. They cite the oblique case in Old French sieur from *seior-em for senior-em.  

Note that the "*" is a suggested path but apparently has no written attestation. In other words, the idea that sir comes from the sen root may be pure invention.

Other persons have noted the difficulty of this etymology.

Significant Etymology; or, Roots, Stems, and Branches of the English Language, James Mitchell, William Blackwood and Sons, 1908, Digitized Dec 27, 2007 by Oxford University.

Even though Mitchell would give sir the usual derivation he notes that it caused considerable trouble for the "old etymologists." When we introduce the evidence of the other Romance languages we find an equal confusion about the sense of someone who is treated with respect, and someone who is merely old. Elsewhere we find a fumbling around with these words.

A Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries Traced Etymologically to the Ancient Language of the British People as Spoken Before the Irruption of the Danes and Saxons: Traced Etymologically to the Ancient Language of the British People as Spoken ..., Charles Mackay, S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1887. Original from Harvard University, Digitized Feb 10, 2006.

While we would consider that Shakespeare may have exercised artistic freedom in applying sir to the Cleopatra and her female attendants, we note that the word sir was used for all ages, and not merely someone who was old. Elsewhere Mackay goes on:

The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe: And More Especially of the English and Lowland Scotch, and Their Slang, Cant, and Colloquial Dialects, Charles Mackay, published for the author by N. Trübner and Co., 1877. Original from Harvard University, Digitized Feb 20, 2008

Mackay notes that SIRE is a Father, a title of respect used for a king, emperor, or other monarch. Mackay here applies the Gaelic saor, saorsadh, and sar words to men of nobility, not to ordinary men. This regal definition is important and appears elsewhere. Throughout this book Mackay notes the use of the word Gaelic sar as argumentative toward anything of excellence, or a great degree of quality, and cites the German sehr-schon meaning very beautiful. So here, without further ado, Mackay proposes the possibility of sir coming directly from the Gaelic sar. Both he and Mitchell note the "trouble for the old etymologists."

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, W. Blackwood, 1862, Item notes: v.91 1862 Jan-Jun, Original from the University of Michigan, Digitized Jul 29, 2005, has a paper entitled Captain Clutterbuck's Champagne in which the author persistently uses the word sar for sir. Apparently the Scotch also had trouble with this word.

The Principles of Gaelic Grammar: With Definitions, Rules, and Examples in English and Gaelic ..., John Forbes, Edition: 2, Published by Oliver and Boyd, 1848, Original from Oxford University, Digitized Oct 9, 2006, shows sar as meaning excellent. Again the implication is one of regal status.

Eric Partridge, in Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Greenwich House Publishers, New York, several editions (1983), notes that:

Here again we see an attempt to understand why the French sieur has no "n" in the etymology. Partridge admits that the Latin dominus, a definite regal title, has been displaced by seigneur, a non-regal title, and believed that a contraction of seigneur led to sieur.

Since sir comes from sire, and since the lexicographers define sire as an archaic word meaning a person of authority, a man of high rank, and as a title of respect used in addressing a king, equivalent to “your majesty,” we must examine the elements of the etymology, and not merely accept the common understanding of origin in a Latin word that means old. (Surly also comes from this word, where the sense of surly is derived from the arrogance and superiority displayed by Sires. See OED. Again this denotes a regal definition, not merely one of high social respect.)

I explored several IE sen forms. I found:

Lithuanian senas = old, ancient, aged, elderly, hoary, etc.
Gothic sinista = most senior, eldest, an elder; *siniza = senior servant.
Sanskrit sanas = old, ancient
Etruscan san = ancestor

Old Irish sean = old.

With a well-known phonetic change we have in several languages:

Breton hen = old
Avestan hano = old
Greek henos = old

Other languages could be cited.

Finally, Latin shows several forms:

Senex, senis = old, aged, old man
senectus = old age, dotage
senium = decay, decline, deterioration
seneo = to be old
senilis = of or belonging to old people, aged, senile
senium = the feebleness of age, decline, decay, debility
senior : lord, elder, from which we get directly our English word senior

As someone said, "Like the Roman senator he was so called, not on account of his age, but because of his wisdom and dignity." As someone else has said: "The Roman Senate (Latin Senatus) was a deliberative body which was important in the government of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The word Senatus is derived from the Latin word senex ('old man' or 'elder'); literally, 'Senate' is understood to mean something along the lines of 'council of elders'." Thus the origins of the familiar word senator.

Latin developed the word senior with the sense of a social superior, perhaps implying a Lord. But this development does not imply a regal difference, merely a respectful social difference based on chronological age. This development is where the confusion lies in our common understanding of the origin of the English sire.

Clearly, the IE root sen is the source of all the forms listed above. In all cases it means old, or elderly, or eldest. (The vowel "e" may shift to "a" or "i", but the root s*n remains the same.) Latin developed words to show linguistic nuances associated with chronological age.

We can now turn back to our original question, did sir somehow derive from sar? Does the derivation imply a regal difference? The nagging question is the so-called reduced form in Old French. How did we lose the "n" from Latin senior to the Old French sieur? Can we trust the derivation shown in the OED and the several investigators?

As Mackay said: "it is to be suspected that the ordinary etymology may rest on a false basis, and that sir and senior are derived from different roots. . . ."

Importantly, the OED gives a definition to sire:

We saw this also from the several investigators.

This is a regal definition, not merely a social definition based on chronological age. This regal definition is an important clue to the origin of sir.

Note that vowel shifts account for the change from sire to sir, or surly. Similar vowel changes could cause sir or sire to originate in sar. The Irish and Scotch Gaelic showed how this transformation may take place.

But this definition is virtually identical to the one for sar found in the Bible, someone who exercises dominion or rule, a master or sovereign. You may find these definitions in the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Expanded Edition, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 2001. Entry #8269 for sar gives prince, chief, captain, ruler, governor, keeper, chief captain, lord, steward, master.

If we use the definitions of these words, sar and sire (sir), we cannot escape the conclusion that they must come from the same linguistic source. In contrast the IE sen root means merely old, not someone who exercises dominion or rule.

You then go on to define sar, and its several forms. I continue to quote you here:
שר Sahr is a chief, leader, captain, minister or ruler ("officer" in Jeremiah 17:25). שרר  sarar is to rule; שררה  sirarah is dominion;  שרת shayrait is to minister (Numbers 1:50). The  סריס  sareeys, sometimes translated "eunich," is a royal officer or minister.  Both  כתר keser  (Esther 6:8)  and זר zer (Exodus 25:11) mean  a crown.  

 Reversing שר shin-resh is another leader:  ראש roash, head (Exodus 6:14).  Resh-shin-hey, רשה  rashah, is to authorize: what a sin-resh שר or resh-shinרש official can do. 

From your presentation I must assume that you hold these two different words, the IE root sen, and the Semitic sar, to be of the same origin. While you intuitively understood the word sir (sire) to have the same meaning as sar, you quoted the OED sen without understanding the discrepancy and without exhaustive examination, as I have now done.

Neither did the authors of the OED understand this discrepancy. They could not see the contradiction in their sources, and hence introduced hypothetical roots to support their notion. (Oh! what scholarly sins we create with "*".)

We can conclude that sir comes from sar and that it is a modern memory of that ancient form.

You list several cognates of sar. I have shown some of these in my paper How Did The Kaiser Get His Title? See:

BRANCHES: The last element in Balshazzar is from Babylonian usar  (king). Sar shifts liquids to Lord in Hittite, an ancient Indo-European language. Sar is the "king" element in Sumerian and Akkadian. The loftiest position in human anatomy is SR reversed, as roas(h) means "head."   Sar is head in Persian, as found in English words like SARABAND and SIRDAR.

 The Sin-Resh of rulership continues with the keser  (crown) of CAESAR -- see "CZAR."   SRs from French are  monsieur and messieurs (gentleman…men of honor).

The SIRE (lord) is usually (A)sheeyr (rich) and no rahsh (poor person). See "SERF" for SR antonyms.    Shri and sri are honorifics  in India.  Usoro is rule in Igbo, Nigeria.  Sori is a Japnese president or prime minister. Sluz-aca  (maid, servant) in Polish (similar in all Slavic) is a fricative-liquid-fricative of the Shin-Resh-Sahf etymon above, and שרות  shairoo(s), service.  Another ruling fricative-liquid-dental is at "SULTAN."

James Curtis Hepburn, A Japanese-English and English-Japanese Dictionary, Tōkyō, A.P. Maruya & Co., Ltd; New York, Trübner & Co., 1907, shows that Japanese sori = manager, administrator, controller; suru = to manage or control affairs. The word, in typical Japanese manner, was also applied, sori = to curve backwards, of swords, sori =  to shave.

To limit this page I do not examine all of your suggested cognates, some of which are not correct.

I hope this will help bring clarity to your work.


PS: In my studies I came to recognize that the IE original language contained elements of the Semitic base, from which the ancient people worked when they did their IE design. While I would like to trace back sens and other sources, it would consume a large part of my time.