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Etymology 1[edit]

PIE word

From Middle English maisterli, from maister (leader, ruler; high official; official in charge of a place; person in control; employer; owner; schoolmaster, teacher; scholar, sage; holder of a master's degree; religious teacher; master craftsman; expert; magician; social superior; husband; lover; Jesus Christ; a god; male stud animal)[1] + -li (suffix forming adjectives).[2] Maister is derived from Old English mæġester (master) and Old French maistre (master) (modern French maître), both from Latin magister (teacher; master), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *méǵh₂s (big, great). The English word is analysable as master +‎ -ly.[3]


masterly (comparative more masterly, superlative most masterly)

  1. Executed in the manner of a master; showing competence and skill; masterful.
    Synonyms: maestrolike, masterlike, (obsolete) masterous; see also Thesaurus:skilled
    Her years of experience enabled her to render a masterly performance.
    • c. 1599–1602 (date written), William Shakespeare, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke: [] (Second Quarto), London: [] I[ames] R[oberts] for N[icholas] L[ing] [], published 1604, →OCLC, [Act IV, scene vii]:
      He made confeſsion of you, / And gaue you ſuch a maſterly report / For art and exerciſe in your defence, / And for your Rapier moſt eſpeciall, / That he cride out t' would be a ſight indeed / If one could match you; [...]
    • c. 1612–1630, John Fletcher, George Chapman, Ben Jonson, Philip Massinger, “The Bloody Brother; or, Rollo. A Tragedy.”, in Fifty Comedies and Tragedies. [], [part 1], London: [] J[ohn] Macock [and H. Hills], for John Martyn, Henry Herringman, and Richard Marriot, published 1679, →OCLC, Act V, scene ii, page 445, column 1:
      H'as a ſtrange cunning tongue, why do you ſigh Sir? How maſterly he turns himſelf to catch me?
    • 1659 (indicated as 1660), Tobie Mathews [i.e., Tobie Matthew], “A Most Humble Servant, to a Most Noble Lady; with Thanks to Her for Some Favours, and Desires of More”, in John Donne, editor, A Collection of Letters, Made by Sr Tobie Mathews Kt. [], London: [] Henry Herringman, [], →OCLC, page 128:
      I have therefore drawn this Picture of her, which your Ladiſhip ſees; and I conceive it, to be very like the Originall, though the hand be not so maſterlie, as the Perſon deſerves, and I wiſh.
    • 1771, [Oliver] Goldsmith, “The Commonwealth”, in The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II. [], volume III, London: [] T[homas] Davies, []; [T.] Becket and [P. A.] De Hondt; and T[homas] Cadell, [], →OCLC, pages 350–351:
      Of all the pamphlets that came forth at that time, or perhaps of thoſe that have ſince appeared, this was the moſt eloquent and maſterly.
    • 1779 February 18, Charles Burney, “XVIII. Account of an Infant Musician.”, in Philosophical Transactions, of the Royal Society of London, volume LXIX, part I, London: [] J[ohn] Nichols, successor to Mr. [William] Bowyer; for Lockyer Davis, printer to the Royal Society, →DOI, →OCLC, pages 202–203:
      samuel [Wesley], the youngeſt, though he was three years old before he aimed at a tune, yet by conſtantly hearing his brother [Charles Wesley junior] practiſe, and being accuſtomed to good muſic and maſterly execution, before he was ſix years old arrived at ſuch knowledge in muſic, that his extemporary performance on keyed inſtruments, like [Wolfgang Amadeus] mozart's, was ſo maſterly in point of invention, modulation, and accuracy of execution, as to ſurpaſs, in many particulars, the attainments of moſt profeſſors at any period of their lives.
    • 1813 January 27, [Jane Austen], chapter VIII, in Pride and Prejudice: [], volume II, London: [] [George Sidney] for T[homas] Egerton, [], →OCLC, pages 94–95:
      "My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
    • [1849], [Anne Manning], “[Aug. 1, 1644]”, in The Maiden & Married Life of Mary Powell, afterwards Mistress Milton, London: [] Hall, Virtue, & Co. [], →OCLC, page 177:
      I fancied you had good Diſpoſitions which, under maſterlie Trayning, would ripen into noble Principles; and therefore promoted your Marriage as far as my Intereſt with your Father had Weight.
      A use of the obsolete spelling of the word for literary effect.
    • 1853 November–December, Herman Melville, “Bartleby”, in Billy Budd and Other Stories, London: John Lehmann, published 1951, →OCLC, page 37:
      I could not but highly plume myself on my masterly management in getting rid of Bartleby. Masterly I call it, and such it must appear to any dispassionate thinker.
    • a. 1944, Sarah Grand, “The Undeniable: A Fantasia”, in Elaine Showalter, editor, Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, published 1993, →ISBN, page 262:
      It is a great moment even for a great artist when he can sit and sigh in solitary satisfaction before a finished picture. I had looked at it while I was waiting for dinner, and even in that empty hour it had seemed masterly; so that now, [...] I expected to feel in it that which surpasses the merely masterly of talent (to which degree of excellence ordinary painters, undowered by the divine afflatus, may attain by eminent industry) and approaches the superb – ecstatic.
    • 1962 October, “New Reading on Railways: Great Western. By Cecil J. Allen, Ian Allan. 2s 6d.”, in Modern Railways, unnumbered page:
      This is a masterly work of condensation, omitting nothing of importance and providing a most readable book that for a modest half-crown is incredibly good value.
    • 2014, Vincent van Gogh, “244 | The Hague, Thursday, 6 July 1882 | To Theo van Gogh (D)”, in Lynne Richards, John Rudge, Diane Webb, transl., edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, New Haven, Conn., London: Yale University Press, →ISBN, page 214:
      In 'Une page d'amour' by Emile Zola I found several townscapes painted or drawn in a masterly, masterly fashion – entirely in the sentiment of the simple passage in your letter.
  2. (usually derogatory, obsolete) Like a master; arbitrary; domineering, imperious.
    Synonyms: despotic, overbearing
    • a. 1569 (date written), Roger Ascham, “The First Booke for the Youth [Teachyng the Brynging vp of Youth]”, in Margaret Ascham, editor, The Scholemaster: Or Plaine and Perfite Way of Teaching Children, to Vnderstand, Write, and Speake, the Latin Tong, [], London: [] John Daye, [], published 1570, →OCLC, folio 12, recto:
      The godlie counſels of Salomon and Ieſus the ſonne of Sirach, for ſharpe kepinge in, and bridleinge of youth, are ment rather, for fatherlie correction, then maſterlie beating, rather for maners, than for learninge: for other places, than for ſcholes.
    • 1653, Arthur Wilson, “[A Letter to My Lord Monteagle [William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle]]”, in The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King Iames the First, [], London: [] Richard Lownds, [], →OCLC, page 30:
      Many times fear is a profitable and an active ſervant, if it do not dominere and grow maſterlie.
    • 1921 April, Donald Ogden Stewart, “Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups: Mr. Thornton Burgess Rewritten by Three Eminent American Novelists”, in Frank Crowninshield, editor, Vanity Fair, volume 16, number 2, New York, N.Y.: Vanity Fair Publishing Company, →OCLC, section III (Jeremiah Muskrat—Financier by Theodore Dreiser), page 90, column 3:
      Mrs. Muskrat had been somewhat timid about displaying these gold teeth. The fashion had not yet reached Green Meadows, but her husband had urged her to do it. "Nonsense, girle," he had said in his masterly manner, "I've got the money to buy the best gold teeth in the world, and why shouldn't you wear them?"
Alternative forms[edit]
Derived terms[edit]

Etymology 2[edit]

From Middle English maisterli (artistically; skilfully; in the manner of a conqueror or master; overconfidently),[4] from maister (see etymology 1) + -li (suffix forming adverbs);[5] analysable as master +‎ -ly (suffix forming adverbs).[6]


masterly (comparative more masterly, superlative most masterly)

  1. (archaic) In a masterful manner; competently, masterfully.
    Synonyms: expertly, skilfully


  1. ^ maister, n.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  2. ^ -lī, suf.(1)”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  3. ^ masterly, adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, March 2001; “masterly”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.
  4. ^ maisterlī, adv.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  5. ^ -lī, suf.(2)”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  6. ^ masterly, adv.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, March 2001.