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Alternative forms[edit]


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



abbess ‎(plural abbesses, masculine abbot)

  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, Foote, Samuel, The Lame Lover[2], page 12:
      Then lend me your ear—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, Wolcot, John, A Poetical, Serious, and Possibly Impertinent, Epistle to the Pope[3], 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, Egan, Pierce, chapter 8, in Life in London[4], 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 0550142304), page 2
  2. ^ Lesley Brown (editor), The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 5th edition (Oxford University Press, 2003 [1933], ISBN 978-0-19-860575-7), page 3
  3. ^ Barrère, Albert; Leland, Charles Godfrey (1889) A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, volume 1, page 3
  4. ^ Farmer, John Stephen (1890) Slang and Its Analogues[1], volume 1, pages 3–4