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Whilst on my previous Angevin history kick, I strolled upon the word demesne, and of course had to look it up at the Online Etymology Dictionary, trying to figure out in what sense it differed from its close synonym domain. There isn't much of a difference, as it turns out:

demesne
c.1300, demeyne (modern spelling by late 15c.), from Anglo-Fr. demesne, demeine, O.Fr. demaine "land held for a lord's own use," from L. dominicus "belonging to a master," from dominus "lord." Re-spelled by Anglo-Fr. legal scribes under influence of O.Fr. mesnie "household" (and the concept of a demesne as "land attached to a mansion") and their fondness for inserting -s- before -n-. Essentially the same word as domain.

My questions actually have more to do with the curious note the dictionary gives in the definition — namely, the bit about "[scribes] fondness for inserting -s- before -n-." I'm at a loss to think of any words that fit that pattern. Can anyone else think of words that display this -sn- pattern, that would have emerged during this time period under the influence of these Anglo-French scribes?
Secondly — and I'm not necessarily expecting an answer on this — is there any good reason scholars would have had such a fondness for this construction? Did they have reasoned etymological reasons behind doing so, correct or not?

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Another spurious 15th century insertion of an s is in island –  Henry May 12 '11 at 7:08
    
@Henry. Very good point ! An 's' was added to island because of the influence of the Anglo Norman isle. Also note that contrary to the feast/fête, host/hôte, beast/bête, the "s" in isle is mute because it was already mute in French when it landed in England. Which is not the case with the other ones (forest, feast, etc...). Similarly, aisle took an extra 's' as well from 'Isle" itself. –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 12 '11 at 13:02

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

As Third Idiot noted, some of these “s before n” come from a Old French, along with a lot of cases of “s before other consonants”. Most of them came from Latin, either directly (sperare gave espoir [hope], hospes, hospit- gave hospital, testa gave teste [head]), others by contraction (asinus gave asne [donkey]) or deformation (fraxinus gave fresne [ash tree]). As an example of a word with close history to the one you're enquiring about, puisne (a legal term) comes from Old French puisné, from Latin roots post [after] and natus [born]. The French word is now written puîné, and I'll describe this process below.

There was later a movement of suppression of the s before many other consonants, starting in the 12th century and going all the way to the 17th. The s was dropped, but remained in pronunciation and was marked with a circumflex accent: asne became âne (pronounced /ɑn/), with the accent a sign that it is not to be pronounced /an/. Other examples above: hospital became hôpital, teste became tête, fresne became frêne, etc. The process wasn't exhaustive, as words with less usage (or scientific words) kept their s: e.g. the adjective hospitalier (cf. the noun hospital).

While this has been a long digression into French, it seems to confirm that people with knowledge of Old French at the time would be inclined to include s before other consonants, though I cannot figure out why n is singled out in the paragraph you quote.


Edit: NateMPLS cites rein, which I hadn't thought about. It comes from Old French rene (Modern French would be rêne), from earlier French resne, from Latin retina. It doesn't have the s in English because it was borrowed from French after the s was dropped.

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Hey Fourth Turtle! Nice feeling getting quoted. –  Thursagen May 13 '11 at 5:45

Words that may have arised:

See the entry for "Rein" (Google books, Imperial Dictionary of the English Language)

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Nice one! It was borrowed from French after the s was dropped. –  F'x May 12 '11 at 8:07

There are plenty of words where 's' is behind 'n'.

Snake
Snowfall

Or if you desire something else:

Mesne (Definition: Intermediate or intervening; median) Visne (Definition: vicinity.) Esne (Definition: Member of the lowest class; This is Old English) Puisne (Definition: In law, a subordinate)

The next word I am about to give you may answer your second question:

Fresne

This is actually a French word. You can probably draw the connection between popularity of words with 'sn' and the close association of the French language with the English language in the 15th century.

http://dictionary.reference.com/

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Of these, only three (snake, snowfall and puisne) appear to be common English words. What are the others?! –  F'x May 12 '11 at 8:06
    
Look them up on the dictionary. –  Thursagen May 12 '11 at 11:11
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they're not in any English dictionary I have. See it that way: I am suggesting that you could improve your answer by explaining what are those inexistent words you are quoting, and what they have to do with the question. As such, it's just not an answer to the question asked. –  F'x May 12 '11 at 11:22

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