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From Middle English abbesse, from Old French abeesse (French abbesse), from Late Latin or Ecclesiastical Latin abbatissa, feminine of Latin abbas, abbatis (abbot).



abbess (plural abbesses)

  1. A female superior or governess of a nunnery, or convent of nuns, having the same authority over the nuns which the abbots have over the monks. [First attested around 1150 to 1350][2]
    The abbess was always after the nuns to keep the convent immaculately clean.
  2. (archaic, British slang) A woman who runs a brothel; a woman employed by a prostitute to find clients.[3][4]
    • 1770, Samuel Foote, The Lame Lover, a Comedy in Three Acts. [], London: [] Paul Vaillant; and sold by P[eter] Elmsly []; and Robinson and Roberts, [], →OCLC, Act I, page 12:
      Why laſt night, as Colonel Kill'em, Sir William Weezy, Lord Frederick Foretop, and I were careleſsly ſliding the Ranelagh round, picking our teeth, after a damn'd muzzy dinner at Boodle's, who ſhould trip by but an abbeſs, well known about town, with a ſmart little nun in her ſuite.
    • 1793, John Wolcot, A Poetical, Serious, and Possibly Impertinent, Epistle to the Pope[1], Ode II, page 33:
      So an old Abbess for the rattling Rakes, / A tempting dish of human nature makes, / And dresses up a luscious Maid: / I rather should have said, indeed, undresses, / To please a youth's unsanctified caresses.
    • 1881, Pierce Egan, chapter 8, in Life in London[2], page 205:
      "I mean to inform you," answered the Oxonian, with a grin on his face, "that those three nymphs, who have so much dazzled your optics, are three nuns, and the plump female is Mother .... of great notoriety, but generally designated the Abbess of .... Her residence is at no great distance from one of the royal palaces; and she is distinguished for her bold ingenuous line of conduct in the profession which she has chosen to adopt; so much so, indeed, that she eclipses all her competitors in infamy."


Related terms[edit]



  1. ^ Elliott K. Dobbie, C. William Dunmore, Robert K. Barnhart, et al. (editors), Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, 2004 [1998], →ISBN), page 2
  2. ^ Lesley Brown, editor-in-chief; William R. Trumble and Angus Stevenson, editors (2002), “abbess”, in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 5th edition, Oxford; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, →ISBN, page 3.
  3. ^ Albert Barrère and Charles G[odfrey] Leland, compilers and editors (1889–1890), “abbess”, in A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant [], volume I (A–K), Edinburgh: [] The Ballantyne Press, →OCLC, page 3.
  4. ^ John S[tephen] Farmer, compiler (1890), “abbess”, in Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present. [], volume I, [London: [] Thomas Poulter and Sons] [], →OCLC, pages 3–4.

Further reading[edit]