Dukes have duchesses, counts countesses, princes princesses, mayors mayoresses, and even emperors empresses. Yet kings have queens rather than say, kingesses. Why is this so? If this was due to some historical quirk of fate, was there ever a word similar to kingess which was superseded by queen?

How about lords, ladies, and ... lordesses?

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    Gentlemanesses... – Mr Lister Jan 18 '13 at 18:53
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    @MrLister Gentlewoman. – coleopterist Jan 18 '13 at 19:16
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    The general answer to any question about why certain sets of words aren't as regular as they could be is that language is not evolved to be efficient and regular. It's evolved to be successful in communicating in variable environments, and that involves a vast amount of redundancy; spoken language is more than 90% redundant. Irregularity of very common words helps a lot with that. Irregularity is a design feature, not a bug. Otherwise we'd all be speaking Volapük – John Lawler Jan 18 '13 at 19:20
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    @JohnLawler Quite so. And understanding the reasons behind said design features make them even more pleasing :) Thanks for the Volapük reference. That's hilarious. – coleopterist Jan 18 '13 at 19:25
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    Flawed premiss: there are no counts in Britain (only earls), but the female equivalent is still countess. History trumps logic any time. – Tim Lymington Jan 18 '13 at 22:29

Queen has its origins in a pre-English word meaning simply ‘wife’. Beyond that, we need to look for anthropological and social, rather than linguistic, reasons why a king’s wife should not have had a more distinctive description.

Lord comes from Old English hláford, meaning ‘keeper of the bread’. Since this was presumably a role denied women, the need for a feminine form didn’t arise.

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    Does queen predate king? If not, was there perhaps an earlier term to signify the king's significant other? – coleopterist Jan 18 '13 at 19:07
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    @coleopterist. The OED’s earliest citation for king, or, rather, its Old English equivalent, is from the ninth century in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There seem to be no reliable dates for the first occurrence of queen, other than that it, too, is found in Old English. – Barrie England Jan 18 '13 at 19:42
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    English queen, like quean, Celtic Gwen, and Greek gyn-, among others, are from the PIE root *gwen- 'woman' – John Lawler Jan 18 '13 at 20:19
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    Earlier hlafweard was the "loaf-ward", the guardian of the bread, and "lady" < hlæfdige, "loaf-maid", ultimately the kneader of the loaf. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 18 '13 at 20:33
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    @StoneyB. Yes, of course, very good point. – Barrie England Jan 18 '13 at 20:37

This is pure conjecture, but I think it's because there is only one. In the peerages of British nobility, there could be multiples of all other nobles, but there could only be one King and Queen. It stands to reason that her name would be unique and individual.

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  • What about the honorary titles Sir versus Dame? There can be multiple "Sirs" and "Dames". – Mari-Lou A Apr 11 '18 at 9:10
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    Please support suppositions with evidence, and maybe add a clarificatory note, perhaps you are referring to why "today" we have a separate word for His Majesty "king" and another for Her Majesty "queen". Are you or are you referring to their etymologies? In which case please read Barie England's answer. – Mari-Lou A Apr 11 '18 at 9:14

Queen is a very old word. It has been in English since before 900. There was never a kingess. The term queen is related to Greek gynḗ (woman) and probably to Latin re-gin-a meaning queen.

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    The Greek connection seems to be correct, but I think Latin regina is actually the "reg" word root meaning "king" (seen also in the word for king rex,regis) plus a feminizing suffix "-ina." – herisson Sep 25 '15 at 3:18

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