“For my knightly service, what will you offer me?”
“Hmm. Some hasenpfeffer?”
“Eff off! That’s not enuf!”
“No fee? Ff… Get stuffed.”
“I’ll enfeoff you.”
“You’ll what? Eff you too!”
“No, enfeoff.” (He writes it down.)
“Enf— that’s a rather naff word.”
“Look, I grant you the fee off some turf. I don’t pay, you just collect from the tenants. You get your own little fiefdom.”
“Mm… OK, but don’t make me spell it.”
Really, this word – its spelling is as much of a relic as the practice it names. It looks like some stuff written by Jules Feiffer set to music by Jacques Offenbach. In fact, it has just the right letters for its sound – if you take away two of them, and leave enfef. But that wouldn’t be much fun.
It’s not that we need the word that much anymore, not literally anyway. We don’t have a feudal system, so there aren’t any fiefdoms to grant knights (and others) for their service. Meaning there is no enfeoffment. No one gets enfeoffed anymore. But it’s so ornamental. Or ornery. Fluffy, anyway.
The en is actually the same en as in endow, enslave, entitle, et cetera. The fun part is the feoff. It’s actually the same as fief – which in turn comes (by way of French) from Latin feudum, which also gives us feudal; fief also comes into English as fee, which referred first of all to a heritable estate held on condition of homage and service, i.e., a fiefdom, and subsequently came to be a word for the money paid from it.
And how did fief come to be feoff? The word was taken into English in the Middle English period, when some Old English spellings – such as eo for what became our “short e” sound – were still around for influence. And the ff just falls in line with the grand old English tradition of luxuriating in double final letters.
Look, we got this word free and clear. No pledge of service required, nor any ownership persisting with its source. We can do as we wish with its spelling. It’s not like we use it every day. So there. Eff off.