In Brief: Manners and Customs (Curts[e]y)

In Brief:  Manners and Customs (Curts[e]y)

When a woman sinks to the ground before monarch or noble(wo)man, does she curtsy or curtsey?  The form without the “e” seems to be more common, certainly more common nowadays (when we seldom do it at all).  Both versions descend from the original “courtesy,” which of course comes from the behavior one assumes when at court.  To be courtly is to do or make courtesy, or courtsie, and to move toward the floor when confronted by a person of superior rank as a sign of respect.servant woman's curtsey

Variations include curtsie (as in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, when Beatrice says that it is her “cosens dutie to make curtsie”), cursey, curtezy, curtesie, curtchie, and curchy.


Spelling was not really standardized in English until the eighteenth century (and seems not to be yet in some quarters), so these variants are unsurprising.  “Curtsy” is the most efficient, and the most phonetic spelling of all the possible choices, and writers of historical fiction most often go for this sensible solution.

girl curtseying

For my Tudor novels in The Cross and the Crown series, however, I’ve chosen “curtsey.”  The word has a pleasing appearance, to my eye, balancing first and second syllables in a way that creates a more symmetrical word to reflect the beauty of the motion itself.  I also like the way it holds out for view the word’s etymology, provides a visual echo of its own past, especially since half of the series takes place while Henry VIII is King of England—and when the word was still “courtesy.”



In our less formal era, the curtsey is still with us.  Whether it’s charming

girls curtseying

or somewhat unexpected


kilt curtsey


the curtsey has (d)evolved, most of the time, into a simple dipping of the head and body.  It still, however, is an unmistakable sign of who’s in charge.

Kate curtsey

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