A dapifer is “one who brings meat to the table”. Its literal meaning is far more interesting for its potential modern uses than for its historical function. daps is Latin for food or feast, originally, as a Greek-derived word, a ceremonial or sacrificial feast, but later, post-Augustus, any kind of feast or banquet. A -fer is a bearer or holder of something.

In Latin, dapifer is a word which evolved to mean “butler” or, more commonly, “steward” or “seneschal”. The job title was fairly widely used in the Middle Ages, with several dapifers listed in the Domesday book. Eudo Dapifer is the most frequently cited of these as he was steward to William the Conqueror. The 1355 Golden Bull, or charter, of the Holy Roman Empire, which specified imperial election procedures, dictated that the count palatine act as dapifer for the coronation.

It was used in English as a Latin import by the mid-seventeenth century, initially by Richard Braithwait, prolific and highly-educated author and poet, as a synonym for a specific rank of courtly household officer, i.e. steward, in his book, The Lives of all the Roman Emperors (1636). Thomas Reeve, charmingly, used it metaphorically in 1657 in his God’s plea for Nineveh, or, London’s precedent for mercy, when he wrote, “Thou art the dapifer of thy palate.” (Quoted from the OED since there are no freely-available copies I can find off-hand online.)

Modern uses of the word for anything other than a description of a historical office are scarce. Diana Norman wrote a pair of historical novels, A Catch of Consequences and Taking Liberties, involving a main character, an English noble, named Philip Dapifer. There are also various streets named after one past dapifer or other. (Eudo again, in the case of Colchester.)

I’d like to think there’s room to revive dapifer’s basic meaning. Vegetarians and vegans would avoid them at meal times. They might work at barbecue restaurants or rotisseries. At home, they may or may not bring home the bacon, but they would certainly make sure that the bacon did not languish in the kitchen when there was a table to bring it to.

*© S. Worthen 2009