1. A rude, surly person; a boor.
2. A miserly person.
a. A ceorl.
b. A medieval English peasant.
[Middle English, from Old English ceorl, peasant.]
Word History: The Old English word ceorl (in which the c was pronounced (ch) as in modern English churl) designated a freeman of the lowest class—one who had a social position above a slave but below a thane. Ceorl comes from Germanic *karilaz, whose basic meaning is “old man.” In Finnish, which is not a Germanic language, the Germanic word was borrowed and survives almost unchanged as karilas, “old man.” The Old Norse descendant of the Germanic word, karl, means “old man, servant,” and the Old High German equivalent, karal, meaning “man, lover, husband,” has become the name Karl. The Germanic word also entered Old French as Charles, from which we have the name Charles. The Medieval Latin form Carolus is based on the Old High German karal. The fame of Carolus Magnus, “Charles the Great,” or Charlemagne, added luster to the name Carolus, and the Slavic languages later borrowed the name as their general word for “king,” korol' in Russian—and so, despite the gulf between a king and a churl, the Russsian korol and the Old English ceorl are related.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
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