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 If this was due to some historical quirk of fate, was there ever a word similar to kingess which was superseded by queen?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?

  • 4
    – Mr Lister
    Jan 18, 2013 at 18:53
  • 2
    @MrLister Gentlewoman. Jan 18, 2013 at 19:16
  • 6
    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 Jan 18, 2013 at 19:20
  • 3
    @JohnLawler Quite so. And understanding the reasons behind said design features make them even more pleasing :) Thanks for the Volapük reference. That's hilarious. Jan 18, 2013 at 19:25
  • 1
    Flawed premiss: there are no counts in Britain (only earls), but the female equivalent is still countess. History trumps logic any time. Jan 18, 2013 at 22:29

5 Answers 5


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.

  • 1
    Does queen predate king? If not, was there perhaps an earlier term to signify the king's significant other? Jan 18, 2013 at 19:07
  • 1
    @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. Jan 18, 2013 at 19:42
  • 4
    English queen, like quean, Celtic Gwen, and Greek gyn-, among others, are from the PIE root *gwen- 'woman' Jan 18, 2013 at 20:19
  • 8
    Earlier hlafweard was the "loaf-ward", the guardian of the bread, and "lady" < hlæfdige, "loaf-maid", ultimately the kneader of the loaf. Jan 18, 2013 at 20:33
  • 1
    @StoneyB. Yes, of course, very good point. Jan 18, 2013 at 20:37

It has to do with the origins of the words.

-ess words

All the words that end in -ess came to English with the Norman Invasion from French and Latin. In fact, the suffix -ess is itself derived from French -esse. So words ending in -ess are of French origin. Almost all of them came to be used from Middle English (ME) onwards:

King and queen on the other hand come from Anglo-Saxon.

King and queen

King and queen are both native English words--Anglo-Saxon words:

  • king comes from Old English cyning (alt. cyng)
  • queen comes from Old English cwēn

cwēn originally meant a wife, specifically that of a king or another important man. Etymonline says that the original sense (i.e. wife) has been specialized by Old English to wife of a king.

Larry Trask suggests that the current meaning of 'queen' is 'improved' because of 'Melioration' (Semantic change). Melioration is an improvement in meaning. He says that queen formerly just meant 'woman', but today it means queen (the female monarch of a kingdom). [Trask's Historical Linguistcs]

In summary, all the -ess words are French/Latinate words while king and queen are native words and don't take these endings.

  • Excellent Anwer. I had no idea that all "-ess" words were French. And that transition from woman/wife to queen is very interesting. Now I need to go read about Melioration.
    – Yurelle
    Apr 5, 2023 at 16:36

"Queen" comes from "Quenna" (the wife of "Quenno") in protoceltic language (perhaps 500 BC. Quenno is the "head" (Head/Leader of Warriors/Soldiers). The Quenno is not the King! King is a protogermanic idiom (Kuningaz). The wife of the "Kuning(az) is "Kuningin". The celtic King is "Rigs" (latin = rex). Because a "King" is everytime the "Regent", but not his wife.

  • 3
    This would be improved with some supporting references. Dec 25, 2020 at 12:16
  • Does this address the question, why there isn't a derived feminine of king, as with prince/princess; duke/duchess; count/countess ... emperor/empress? Dec 25, 2020 at 14:52
  • The standard etymology for "queen" traces it from the Germanic branch of Indo-European. Can you cite a source for the statement that it was derived instead from a Celtic word?
    – herisson
    Dec 27, 2020 at 23:37
  • Yes. My source is the university of wales (Prifysgol Cymru). Look the link: wales.ac.uk/en/CentreforAdvancedWelshCelticStudies/…
    – Mr. Werner
    Dec 29, 2020 at 14:34
  • Protoceltic: *kʷenno- (Quenno) = Head, *kʷenno-tamiko = Lord. "-o" is masculinum and "-a" femininum
    – Mr. Werner
    Dec 29, 2020 at 14:42

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.

  • 3
    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, 2015 at 3:18

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.

  • What about the honorary titles Sir versus Dame? There can be multiple "Sirs" and "Dames".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 11, 2018 at 9:10
  • 2
    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, 2018 at 9:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.