What's in a Word | All Blogs


Trusted knights, classy real estate

By Debra Dobbins

“Paladin” appears in George Will's column today on B2. Like so many words in English, it has a long and colorful history, ultimately winding its way back to a Roman hill.

In the sense that Will uses it today, “paladin” means “leader,” but in the Middle Ages a paladin was a knight and a palace official in the court of the renowned ruler Charlemagne, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History. “Endless tales were told of the doughty deeds … of his knights (similar to those which, in England, were told of King Arthur's knights).”

Legends say, Asimov adds, that 12 of these trusted paladins were in Charlemagne's court.

Both “paladin” and “palace” go back to the Latin “palatium, after Palatium, one of the seven hills of Rome, where Augusta lived,” according to Webster's. Asimov refers to it as Palatine Hill.

As the city grew, Palatine Hill soon became quite the upscale neighborhood, according to Asimov. “Cicero lived there and so did many other wealthy Romans. It was handy to the circuses, the amphitheatre, the forum, and the temples.”

In 31 B.C. Octavian Caesar built a “lavish” home there and his successor, Tiberius, would later choose a nearby site on the hill for his sumptuous new digs, Asimov notes. Still later, Asimov writes, Nero would establish himself in the neighborhood.

“Nero built a most ornate structure that took up a large section of the hill. A structure like this was a 'palatium' ('a building on the Palatine') and the word came to be used for the residence of a ruler. In French it become 'palais' and in English palace.”

Roland is gifted with a sword by Charlemagne. From a manuscript of a chanson de geste*
Ruins of the Domus Augustana on Palatine Hill
Photos and captions courtesy of Wikipedia
*Old French for “song of heroic deeds,” according to Wikipedia

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