1. A fixed sum charged, as by an institution or by law, for a privilege: a license fee; tuition fees.
2. A charge for professional services: a surgeon's fee.
3. A tip; a gratuity.
4. Law See fee simple.
a. In feudal law, an estate in land granted by a lord to his vassal on condition of homage and service. Also called feud2, fief.
b. The land so held.
tr.v. feed, fee·ing, fees
1. To give a tip to.
2. Scots To hire.
[Middle English fe, from Old English feoh, cattle, goods, money, and from Anglo-Norman fee, fief (from Old French fie, fief, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English feoh); see peku- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Word History: Fee comes from Old English feoh, which has three meanings: "cattle, livestock," "goods, possessions, movable property," and "money." The Germanic form behind the Old English is *fehu-, which derives by Grimm's Law from Indo-European *peku-, "movable wealth, cattle." In the ancient societies of Europe and Asia that spoke Indo-European languages, the wealth of a person or group was often measured by the size of their herds—just as it is in many traditional pastoral societies today. So it is natural that a word meaning "cattle" and "movable wealth" could also mean "money," as ancient economies developed and standard coinage of gold and silver was introduced. The same development from "livestock" to "money" can also be observed in the family of Latin words derived from pecu, "cattle," the direct Latin descendant of Indo-European *peku- and cognate of English fee. In Latin, many words relating to money and finance were derived from pecu, and several of these derivatives were ultimately borrowed into English, for example, pecūnia, "money," the source of our word pecuniary. Another was pecūliāris, "relating to one's pecūlium or personal property, particular to oneself," the source of our word peculiar. Finally, our word peculate comes from yet a third derivative, pecūlāre, "to embezzle public money."
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 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:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.