Even prestigious reference works explain the term and the job of a butler or butleress simply as ?servant in an upper-class household?. On top of this already insufficient paraphrase, they also tend to add the assertion “above all in England” far too readily. However, a look not only at the word itself but also at the scope of activities which lies behind the name and the history of the profession reveals something entirely different…
From barrel to bottle
The earliest roots of the term butler or butleress can be found in the language of the late Roman Empire. At that time, the term “butticulae” was used to describe small barrels or pitchers used to store or serve wine. The French word for bottle, “bouteille”, derives from this term. Its use dates back to the 17th century – a time when glass began to become widely available and was also used to store small amounts of wine.
From the cellar to the kitchen
What this explanation of storage methods has to do with a term used to describe a household manager is made clear by a word derived from “bouteille”: bouteiller. The so described household servant was principally entrusted with stocking and managing the wine cellar – and therefore the direct successor of the servant formerly known as the cupbearer. These servants were always under the supervision of a higher ranking housekeeper – who would occasionally instruct the ?bouteiller? to also deal with the purchases for and the stocking of the pantry.
From the mainland to the Isles
The respectively extended role of the French bouteiller also attracted interest from overseas. As drinking wine was far less widespread in the British and Scottish Isles than on the continent, those employed there as keepers of the bottles suffered from chronic underemployment. The English noblemen were therefore more than pleased to give them additional tasks. Hence they not only created a new role modelled on a French household manager but also came up with a new term to describe such a servant.
From bouteiller to butler
Not only the main duties, but also the phonetics changed in the course of this transition to an area where another language was spoken. Due to the slightly simpler structure of English, the melodious bouteiller was turned into the easier to pronounce buteler, a word that must have reminded the inhabitants of the Isles of earlier times, as it already appears in mediaeval Anglo-Norman. Although it was not used to describe a housekeeper at that time, it did at least describe someone who was in charge of managing the cellar and responsible for the wine stored there.
Female butler or butleress?
These linguistic paths, entwined in such an extraordinary way, also explain why the term ?butleress? is now commonly used for a female housekeeper in an upper-class household: it recalls the origins of the masculine version, because French as well as Anglo-Norman belong to the family of Romance languages. The addition of the standard feminine ending -ess means that the terms of butler and butleress simply follow suit. They were inspired by the members of the nobility whose households a butler or butleress managed, such as a Duke and a Duchess, for example. If that is not more than just a linguistic coincidence…