What do you do when you look up to someone? How do you express it? Perhaps you say, “You da man! I’m your homey!” Or perhaps more subtly, or more formally, you give him his due – or her hers. In modern times, we don’t typically think of kneeling before the person, hands clasped together, so that the person may take our hands in his or hers and so accept our fealty. But, then, in modern times, when we pay homage, it is not a real binding commitment as of a vassal to a lord. No, when someone owns our butt, it’s with ink on paper. And we’re not so romantic about it.
But we do romanticize things that have come forth from the middle ages. Ah, chivalry, and feudalism, and all that wonderful stuff – a time of giants, and knights, and a world that might as well have been constructed of felt for all most of us really know of it. And we also use it as the basis for more figurative uses today. So it is with homage: it was first a word for declaring one’s service and fealty, of saying “I’m your man” – of in fact becoming his man, as the hom is “man” as in Latin hominem and modern French homme and the age is is that nominalizing suffix we see in so many different words. And now homage simply means a declaration of respect or reverence, a eulogizing. We may pay homage, but we don’t actually pay.
Incidentally, although we may have a habit of thinking of medieval England when we imagine all that chivalry and so on, proper due needs to be given to the French, who really played a very important role in all that the era is associated with. Aside from giving us much of the historical basis for our Disney-ized modern fantasies – including our modern concept of romance, which was founded in dalliances that led not to a new marriage but rather away from an existing one – the French gave us various pertinent words: romance for one; chivalry for another; and, of course, homage for a third. It also gave us pilgrimage (even if Canterbury’s pilgrims never left England), marriage, and other similar usages in our language.
Oh, yes, that age – never mind the middle ages, let’s talk about the final age. To which language does it owe allegiance? It comes to use from French (which made it thus from Latin aticum); many of our words ending in age came fully formed from French, often quite a long time ago (homage came in the 1200s); the suffix itself also got brought over and even today is used to form new words (pwnage must be about as au courant as one can get).
But while it still is also used in French, it’s ours now, and so are all those words, stolen fair and square and generally modified to suit. Nonetheless, while many of them have an English-style pronunciation (marriage, pilgrimage, language, usage, advantage), some others have retained – or reverted to – a more French phonemics. One such is garage, a comparatively recent borrowing, which is said like “gahr-ij” in England but in the French style in the U.S. and Canada. Another such is homage, which got along well enough for centuries in the same anglicized mould, “haw-mij”, but which more recently has on some people’s tongues taken on some French leanings: perhaps just the initial /h/ dropping off, or perhaps said just (or almost) as if it were French… although it’s not spelled the same as the French word (hommage). Well, if you want to make something more formal and fancy, it never hurts to give it a foreign pronunciation (inasmuch as practically anything is all that foreign to English, the tosspot of languages), especially if that foreign pronunciation is French.
But if that seems a little archaic, well, all sorts of things coming from the middle ages are of course archaic. All those notions of chivalry that put women on pedestals but kept them from doing much, for instance, and of course the obvious masculinity of original reference in homage, too. But that doesn’t mean this word is still sexist – etymology is no reliable guide to current meaning and certainly cannot dictate it. We don’t want to have mistaken ideas of history, but we also don’t want to have mistaken ideas about the present.
We will not, of course, utterly eradicate our fantasies and mythologies about the middle ages. Nor should we; as long as we can separate fantasy from fact, it’s good to have a mythos. It gives us a common cultural base. And not just notions of romance, either, but formative ideas from our childhood – of a world where everything might as well have been made of felt, and there were figures we could look up to, waayyyyy up, friendly giants to pay homage to – like the Friendly Giant, played by Bob Homme.