What’s a doyen?


Word count: 305 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Building your vocabulary is always a good idea. It benefits your reading and it also helps you be more specific and precise in your writing. Here is my word of the week, doyen.

The vocabulary used in the magazine The New Yorker does not typically send me scurrying for a dictionary. But that fact says less about the magazine’s writing, which is always sophisticated, and more about my inherent laziness. I’m well read enough to be vaguely familiar with a great many words, and I can slide by with a limited understanding of most of the words the magazine uses. The May 28/12 issue illustrates this point with an interesting article headlined “Easy Writers” by Arthur Krystal. Here is the sentence containing the word in question:

The doyen of thriller writers, however, continues to be the Detroit-based novelist Elmore Leonard. (pictured here)

I had always thought of doyen as a term referring to an older, somewhat bossy woman, along the lines of Lady Bracknell in the Oscar Wilde play The Importance of Being Earnest. Technically speaking, that would be a doyenne and the word is actually more nuanced than I’d remembered. In fact, male or female, it refers to a senior member of any group, class or profession and not just senior by age but also by age, rank or experience. Thus, even a kindergarten class could have a doyen (or doyenne)!

The word dates back to the early 15th century and is Middle French, from doyen, meaning “commander of 10.” If there are any etymologists or military types reading this blog, I would love to know why 10 is considered a significant number in this case. My research wouldn’t reveal this point.

Posted June 20th, 2012 in Word of the week

  • Bob

    Chasing “doyen” I found decanus (Gk for ten), head of ten monks, also of ten soldiers in the Roman army. Associated with deien, from which we have dean, a college doyen.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Thanks for your research, Bob! Now I’d just like to know the SIGNIFICANCE of 10. Why should a doyen have any relationship to 10?

      • Bob

        Well, it seems doyen is derived from deien, which is from decanus, which comes from decem, ten.

        • Daphne Gray-Grant

          Yes, I get the etymology but I’m wondering WHY a doyen would need to be the “senior member of a group of 10.” Why not the senior member of a group of 45, or 89 or 153?? Do you see what I mean?

          I have the same wonder about the word decimate — which means the removal of a tenth — but has been recast today to mean “routed” or “drastically reduced.” The focus on 10 seems a bit strange to me, although perhaps my question is more anthropological then lexicographical?

          • Bob

            Romans had a yen for ten, in military and civil life; decimation was the punishment of every tenth soldier, the supreme authority was the decemviri. With the zero to help the dot, the decade is more useful than the dozen when organizing an army or a monastery.