The wife of an earl (in England) or a count (in France or other countries using French titles) or a woman who inherited the rank from a parent. Presumably there was once some Anglo-Saxon female equivalent to "earl", but the French word "countess" displaced it.

In Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English, he notes that "it is a likely speculation that the Norman French title "Count" was abandoned in England in favor of the Germanic "Earl" ...precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt, which in Middle English could be spelt counte." Apparently for "countess" and "viscount" the extra syllables kept the similarity from being a problem, so those French titles were kept in England.

Count"ess (kount"?s), n.; pl. Countesses (-s). [F. comtesse. See Count a nobleman.]

The wife of an earl in the British peerage, or of a count in the Continental nobility; also, a lady possessed of the same dignity in her own right. See the Note under Count.

 

© Webster 1913.

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