This is something I've been wondering a while and it may be owed to the fact that on occasion when you see a movie or documentary with subtitles turned on, the spoken word that I would recognize as "pawn" is being spelled "peon" in the subtitles.

Now do a search for pawn peon on this site. Turns out that even on this site someone was using the two words seemingly in an interchangeable fashion.

Wiktionary gives two explanations for the meaning of pawn (quote):

  1. (chess) The most common chess piece, or a similar piece in a similar game. In chess each side has eight; moves are only forward, and attacks are only forward diagonally or en passant.
  2. (colloquial) Someone who is being manipulated or used to some end, usually not the end that individual would prefer.

    Though a pawn of the gods, her departure is the precipitating cause of the Trojan War.

There is no mention of peon on that page, yet the three explanations for the meaning of peon given on its page - also in the sense pawn is used in chess - are relatively close. But whereas pawn is traced back to French, peon is traced back to Spanish according to those web pages. Both being Romance languages, this does of course not rule out a common origin.

So what I am wondering is: is it mere misunderstanding and/or error when someone spells the spoken word "pawn" as "peon" or are the words sharing the same origin and original meaning?

  • 1
    For the future: If you Google, for instance, etymology pawn you will be shown several sites which give the word's etymology.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 22, 2018 at 14:02
  • Using Google this way (and using define pawn for definitions) is helpful, because you can easily access a number of opinions.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 22, 2018 at 16:21
  • @HotLicks ah, I see. So define is some kind of search operator like inurl:? Nov 22, 2018 at 16:22
  • Some TV closed-captioning these days seems to be outsourced to low-cost countries where English is a second (or third, etc) language and the captioners get words wrong. One might expect more of movies and documentaries, perhaps...
    – torek
    Nov 22, 2018 at 18:12
  • 1
    define and etymology are not so much "operators" as they are simply keywords that Google recognizes as having special significance.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 23, 2018 at 3:45

1 Answer 1


From etymonline, on "peon":

...from Spanish peon "day laborer," also "pedestrian," originally "foot soldier," from Medieval Latin pedonem "foot soldier" (see pawn (n.2)).

Following the reference, we get "pawn" in the sense of the chess piece:

...from Anglo-French poun, Old French peon, earlier pehon, from Medieval Latin pedonem "foot soldier"... Figurative use, of persons, is from 1580s.

So it looks like you're correct that they come from the same root. However, they're not interchangeable - 'peon' indicates low status, but 'pawn' indicates someone who is being manipulated, due to the chess connection. A king could be the pawn of a crafty advisor, but he's hardly a peon; likewise, a peasant farmer is a peon, but if he's just minding his own business and no noble is taking notice of him, he's unlikely to be anyone's pawn in a direct sense.

  • 1
    thanks for tracking it down further. I bookmarked that website, it was new to me. Just one clarification: I observed that someone was using them in a seemingly interchangeable fashion, not that they necessarily are interchangeable. Nov 22, 2018 at 13:24

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.