• suzerain •
Pronunciation: su-zê-rên, su-zê-rayn • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A state or sovereign that has control of political and international affairs of a vassal state, while allowing it control over its domestic policy. 2. A feudal overlord to whom vassals must pay a tribute.
Notes: Today's Good Word is one that we hear rarely now that feudalism has been mostly eliminated. The noun may be used as an adjective, as a suzerain power, which makes possible another noun, suzerainty, referring to the status of suzerain state. Suzerainty differs from hegemony in that while the suzerain controls only the international relations of the vassal state, the hegemonist has complete control. Speakers, however, seldom make this distinction. An alternative spelling is suzereign.
In Play: The Ottoman Empire was historically the suzerain of Moldova, Serbia, and Wallachia. For years China was a suzerain to Mongolia. More recently, China has been the suzerain to Tibet, allowing it a small amount of autonomy while controlling it politically. The relationship of the republics of the former Soviet Union to Russia was hegemonic, for the Russians allowed the republics no autonomy.
Word History: English borrowed suzerain from Old French suserain, from the adverb sus "up" by analogy with Old French soverain "sovereign". Sus is a contraction of Latin susum "upward", itself a contraction of a speculative word subsvorsum "turned upward". This word would have been a compound of sub(s) "under" + vorsum, neuter of vorsus, a variant of versus "turned", the past participle of vertere "to turn". (Are you still with me?) We can see both the original sub and vertere in the English borrowing subvert. The same Proto-Indo-European root that went into the making of Latin vertere produced English writhe and wreath, both involving turning or twisting. In Russian we see vertet' "turn, twirl" from the same source. (Today's Good Word was suggested last year by Dane Bounds, to whom we owe an extra debt of gratitude for his patience.)