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One meaning of the word is "female master." The Latin equivalent would be Domina.

Another connotation is "lover." Not quite what one associates with "Domina."

Or was there a connection between the two made when men took "dominant" women as lovers?

Could one possible instance of this phenomenon be the medieval "courtly love?"


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Not just lover -- illicit lover. – onomatomaniak Jan 12 '12 at 14:52
"Lover" does in fact associate with "domina" in some relationships … – MετάEd Jan 12 '12 at 15:12
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations for mistress are from the fourteenth century when it meant, very broadly, ‘a woman having control or authority’. It had the sense of ‘a woman loved and courted by a man; a female sweetheart’, with no indication of impropriety, very early, perhaps a mere 100 years after its first recorded use. Almost from the start it seems to have had multiple meanings. That’s hardly surprising given how common a word it must have been. The dominatrix sense, however, doesn’t appear until 1921.

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I wasn't talking a about a "dominatrix" in today's sense of the word. But Queen Elizabeth I was clearly a dominant "mistress," who had many male admirers and some "lovers," all of whom (except Philip II) were lower-ranking than her. – Tom Au Jan 12 '12 at 19:34
@TomAu: No, but I got the impression that others were. – Barrie England Jan 12 '12 at 19:47

Check out the online etymology.

This term comes from French, as many English terms do, and in French, words vary in gender depending on whether they apply to a man or a women.

A man in charge of a number of domestic staff, workers or pupils would be called "maître" and a woman "maîtresse" (same word but applying to a member of the fair sex).

A woman came to be called "maîtresse" as a romantic metaphor for the influence she held on a man's heart (at that time, this term did not imply -or reject- illicit relationships or even a carnal relationship), just that the woman was loved. The term then came to designate a fiancee and in the 17c a women having sexual relations with a man outside of marriage.

In short, no, the term Mistress did not originally imply a dominant lover and still does not by default, unless the context suggests it, of course.

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Using the "courtly love" model, I believe that "early on," (12th century), "mistress" DID refer to men chasing higher status women who would be their "mistress" in the dominant sense of the word. But based on your reference (and others), it seems the term "crossed over" in mid-Millenium (15th-16th century), to include "dominant" men (kings or dukes), "dating" lower born women. – Tom Au Jan 12 '12 at 15:49
@Tom Is there any basis in your belief? Mistress originates from the feminine form of "Maître", which comes directly from the Latin Magister. "Magister" never had the meaning of "mistress". It was only well into the first Millenium that written documents start to appear, mostly religious in nature. One of the earliest confirmed use I know of the word mistress in a romantic sense comes from Ronsard (16c) and does not imply any such a thing. In the middle ages, a woman was property and held a rank based on her family, who would not take kindly on an upstart courting a noble woman. – Sylverdrag Jan 12 '12 at 17:03
It's true that "a woman's family would not take kindly to an upstart" MARRYING a noble woman. But the idea of courtly love was based on a (theoretically) PLATONIC relationship. Besides, such a woman would be courted only in "middle age" (late 30s or 40s) after the "family" (parents, and even husband) were all dead. Also, a lot of the "upstarts" under courtly love were YOUNG knights (who hadn't made their mark). Once they did, they would "graduate" from relationships with noble "mistresses" (and marry younger women of similar rank). – Tom Au Jan 12 '12 at 17:10

The meaning of "female master" came first. The second meaning of "illicit lover" seems to follow quite naturally to me. I don't have any documentary historical evidence to back this up, just my intuition, but it seems quite natural that people would think of an illicit lover as dominating (domina + ing) her boyfriend through her seductive powers. He is enslaved to her through his lust and her charms. The usage is not literal but whimsical.

I doubt that it has anything to do with dominant women in the sense of women with forceful personalities, and even less likely that it has to do with women of high social or political status. Maybe I'm applying modern connotations to antiquated usage here, but if a man was having an affair with the queen, I don't think he would call her his "mistress": that would be demeaning to her, and I presume he wouldn't dare.

It is common for men to talk about their wives half-joking as being dominating, even if she is not a very domineering person. When he changes his plans to appease her or consults her before making some minor decision, he often comments on how he "must check with the boss" or follow "she who must be obeyed".

This isn't a new idea. I can't find the quote right now, but I recall reading a quote from an ancient Greek king to his wife that was something to the effect of, "All Greece is ruled by a 2 year-old child. For our son rules you, you rule me, and I rule the Greeks."

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I'd love to know who said that. – MετάEd Jan 12 '12 at 15:13
Mistress was a romantic term in French, referring to the governing influence a loved woman had on one's heart. The sense "Illicit lover" came only much later, in the 17c. – Sylverdrag Jan 12 '12 at 15:39
This is an extended opinion rather than anything resembling an answer. Please edit to make an actual answer out of it or convert to a comment. – Mitch Jan 12 '12 at 16:57
@Mitch: I freely admit that I am presenting a theory on etymology with no citations. If answers with no citations are illegal here, this certainly isn't the first! :-) – Jay Jan 12 '12 at 21:53
@MetaEd: I did a quick search but I couldn't find it. Arggh, and it was such a great quote. – Jay Jan 17 '12 at 15:42

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