Adventures in Etymology – Dean

Today we’re investigating the origins of the word dean.


A dean [diːn] is:

  • A senior official in a college or university, who may be in charge of a division or faculty.
  • A dignitary or presiding officer in certain church bodies.
  • The senior member of some group of people

It comes from the Middle English de(e)n (dean), from the Anglo-Norman deen (dean), from the Old French deien (dean), from the Latin decānus (chief of ten people, dean), from decem (ten), and -ānus (of, pertaining to) [source].

Incidentally, dean is not related to words for person or man in Celtic languages, such as dyn [dɨːn / diːn] in Welsh. and duine [ˈd̪ˠɪnʲə] in Irish. They come from the Proto-Celtic word *gdonyos (person) [more details].

The English word doyen (a leading light, exemplar of a practice or movement, senior member of a group) comes from the same Latin root, via the modern French doyen (dean, senior member) [source].

A related word is decurion (an officer in charge of ten men in the Roman army, a member of the local government in ancient Rome), which comes from the Latin decuriō (decurion, foreman), from decuria (a group of ten men/soldiers, a jury), from decem (ten) and vir (man) [source].

Other words in English that come from the Latin decem (ten) include decimal, decimate, and december (the 10th month in the Roman calendar) [source]. Dime (a coin worth one-tenth of a dollar in the USA and Canada) comes from the Latin decimus (tenth) [source].

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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