What is the ‘-dom’ in ‘freedom’?
‘Without freedom of thought’, the great American statesman Benjamin Franklin once wrote, ‘there can be no such thing as wisdom’.
Profound words, these are, about some profound words: freedom and wisdom. For Franklin, it is thought that binds them together. For the English language, in this case, it’s -dom. What is this unassuming little -dom? What does it mean and where does it come from? Let’s put some scribbledom to its puzzledom.
The Anglo-Saxondom of –dom
-Dom is a noun-forming suffix denoting a condition, state, or status. Freedom, on its most elemental level, is the state of being free. Wisdom is the quality of being wise. We could even coin a word like, say, emojidom. It could characterize all things emoji, from codepoints to plush toys, or the representation of an idea or object in emoji form.
While productive today, -dom dates back to the earliest days of English. In fact, some of the oldest and most prevalent instances of -dom are found in the musty manuscripts of Old English. Freedom and wisdom, for example, were inked during the first millennium CE. English’s Germanic fellows and forebears also featured forms of the suffix, such as the German -tum or Old High German -tuom.
The suffix -dom is related to the Old English noun dōm, pronounced like dome. Those words have no relation, for the modern form of dōm is doom. The Great Vowel Shift and English orthography account for doom’s sound and shape.
Dōm, or doom, originally meant ‘law’, ‘statute’, or ‘judgment’. Doomsday is Judgement Day, with that dread notion of ‘final judgment’ eventually yielding the senses of doom as ‘fate’, ‘death’, or ‘ruin’ come Shakespeare’s quilldom.
The etymological nuts and bolts of dōm, if we look to historical reconstructions of protolanguages, are ‘that which has been put down’. We can imagine an ordinance or decree about dowries or sheep so scratched into the vellum or stone of some Anglo-Saxon earldom.
For dōm, Proto-Indo-European linguists posit a root, *dhē-, meaning ‘to set or put’. Among its many other derivatives in other Indo-European tongues, *dhē- is believed to give English the earthy actions of deed, deem, and do.
The empiredom of -dom
Joining freedom and wisdom in Old English -domdom are Christendom, kingdom, martyrdom, and, less common, heathendom and masterdom.
We’ve since lost, alas, a number of delightful -dom words, including leechdom and swikedom. Leechdom was ‘medicine’ or a ‘remedy’, with leech once a ‘doctor’. Swikedom was ‘deceit’ or ‘treachery’, with swike a now obsolete verb for ‘cheat’.
English has more than compensated for that thiefdom of time, though. In fact, some of the most familiar and frequent -dom words are far younger than you might guess. Dukedom, OK, is recorded in the 15th century and chiefdom, the 16th. But boredom, officialdom, serfdom, and stardom are all established by the 19th century – the heyday of -dom formations in the English language, at least, as currently reflected by the Oxford English Dictionary. Fandom is dated to at least 1903.
From cockneydom to schoolboydom, the OED logs hundreds of –doms in the 1800s, towering over its entries for Middle English and Modern English. The inkhorn inclinations of the pendom, magazinedom, noveldom, and scribedom of the day, all 19th-century specimens, may account for the suffix’s -dom-inance. But it’s perhaps more interesting to consider -dom not by date but by type.
The Babeldom of -dom
We have a diverse body of peopledom: Beatledom, beggardom, celebritydom, crookdom, dudedom, gangsterdom, gentiledom, gossipdom, hobodom, hucksterdom, motherdom, next-door-neighbour-dom, and pagandom. We have Anglo-Saxondom, Arabdom, Hoosierdom, Islamdom, Jewdom, Maoridom, Romandom, Turkdom, and Yankee-doodle-dom.
We have the professional bakerdom and butcherdom, cabdom and cookdom, priestdom and popedom, teacherdom and tinkerdom. We have centaurdom, devildom, elfindom, fairydom, ghostdom, vampiredom, and witchdom, if we’re generous about our definition of persondom.
Some more contemporary -dom denizens include coupledom, geekdom, hackerdom, hipsterdom, and yuppiedom.
Not to be left out are all their cultural products and institutions: bestsellerdom, churchdom, computerdom, filmdom, motordom, thrillerdom, yachtdom, even ismdom.
We also have a wild world of animaldom: apedom, antdom, beardom, butterflydom, cameldom, catdom, dogdom, beedom, owldom, oysterdom, pigdom, poodledom, puppydom, and ravendom.
Then there’s goosedom, but that’s actually a 17th-century coinage for ‘stupidity’. It joins a wonderful class of -dom words poking fun at the wastreldom of the weasels, whiners, halfwits, and the waywardly: bumbledom, bugbeardom, Dogberrydom, dupedom, fickledom, fogeydom and old-fogeydom, flunkeydom, fribbledom, hackdom, loaferdom, nosy-parkerdom, prigdom, ramshackledom, rascaldom, ruffiandom, Sardoodledom, scoundreldom, skollydom, snobdom, sweendom, and twaddledom.
The roguedom of –dom
Since Old English, -dom has kept busy. It has enjoyed much theedom, or ‘prosperity’ in Middle English. But with the exceptions of newcomers like boredom and fandom, its energies have been more playful than purposeful. The thronedom of –dom is of one-offs and nonce-words like fogdom, inter-mingledom, or, a personal favourite, sniveldom – ‘having a cold’.
Why? In part because –dom has competition. Other English suffixes like -hood, -ness, and –ship vie for noundom, as does that pushy host of Latin abstractors such as -ity, -ment, -tion, and -tude.
-Dom’s niche, as a result, seems to have become forging realms and ranks out of the unexpected, creating clever categories that compel us to consider collective behaviour in new ways. Blogdom, double-standard-dom, hyggedom, memedom, millennialdom, subtweetdom, Tinderdom, wokedom. These words we just fashioned off the cuff and a quick search online would likely turn them up, too. They don’t, in all likelihood, have any real staying power, but in context, they have rhetorical force.
What’s more, these words have a sense that the native English speaker can innately distinguish from other such nouning: bloghood, hyggeness, and millennialship are all abstract nouns, but they connote something slightly but significantly different than their -dom counterparts.
Consider fanhood and fandom. One might achieve fanhood, say, after they launch their Tumblr dedicated to Benedict Cumberbatch, joining his larger fandom. The distinction is subtle but real. It’s not something that we’re necessarily taught when we learn the English language. It’s not something that we have quite formally ‘set down’, to bring it full circle, in our tongue.
With the suffix -dom comes great freedom, we might say, and great responsibility for the wisdom to know just when and how to use it.