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Is this something invented by Martin or did it originate elsewhere?

More specifically, was there another fantasy author that used "Ser" as a noble title? I'm mainly asking because I cannot shake a feeling that I've read a book that used the word and wasn't authored by Martin, but I can't recall anything specific so perhaps I'm just conflating something with ASOIAF.

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    Also Maester instead of Master and Arl instead of Earl? – Valorum Apr 5 '15 at 19:20
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    @Richard I know this question is not tagged for the show, but do you know if "Arl" is said in the show at all, or just appears in the books? – TylerH Apr 6 '15 at 14:32
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    @tylerh - Just in the books, as far as I'm aware. – Valorum Apr 6 '15 at 14:34
  • It would be strange if he was the first to do it, but I remember reading an essay by Asimov where he admits to using often the trick of changing the spelling of a common name to make it sound from a different world/culture: Hari, Daneel, ... – Federico Poloni Apr 8 '15 at 12:10
53

Real world words

Is this something invented by Martin or did it originate elsewhere?

I hate to break it to the in-universe and sci-fi/fantasy-authors-invented-this folk, but these are all real world language.

  • As chepner points out in another answer, "ser" is simply Middle English for the Modern English "sir", as the OED says.
  • "maester" is Early Modern English for "master". It can be found in William Tyndale's 1534 translation of the New Testament, alongside words such as "faether", "moether", and "broether". (Brooke Foss Westcott (1872). "§ I. Tyndale." A General View of the History of the English Bible. 2nd Edition. London. Macmillan, pp. 51–52)
  • "Joffrey": There's a huge range of ways to spell names rooted in "got" + "fridu". Some of them can be seen at "Gotfrid" (The Kurufin's Castle). Spellings such as "Jofry" and "Jofré" are quite real. "Joffrey" and "Robb" (a simple diminutive of "Robert") are first names that have become surnames over the past seven or so centuries, and one can find many people with these names. There was an aristocratic Joffrey family in Vevey, Switzerland from the 15th to the 18th centuries, for example.

There's a more extensive analysis of these real world archaisms done by an OED employee:

Other authors

More specifically, was there another fantasy author that used "Ser" as a noble title?

As you have seen, plenty have used these real world archaisms. I add one more to follow on from Nate Wells' answer: James Tiptree Jr. who used gender-neutral "Ser" and "Myr". In Brightness Falls from the Air the appendix says:

Myr, Myrrin: Myr serves for Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss and is often prefixed affectionately or jokingly to a person's first name or nickname. Myrrin is the plural, corresponding to "Ladies and Gentlemen".

And a character insists upon being called "Ser" instead of "Myr", just as some people in the real world insist upon being a "Sir" when called "Mister":

"And then you are Myr … ?" Kip addresses the taciturn man.

"Ser Xe Vovoka," the stranger corrects him. […]

Kip recalls that "Ser" is a technical honorific, somewhere beyond "Doctor". Not to call him "Myr".

31

GRRM is known to be a fan of Sci-Fi Author Jack Vance. In his "Moon Moth", Vance uses Ser for Sir. That may (or may not) have been the inspiration for Martin's unusual spelling:

A slave rose from where he had been squatting, touched knuckles to the black cloth at his forehead, and sang on a three-tone phrase of interrogation: "The Moon Moth before me possibly expresses the identity of Ser Edwer Thissell?"

Thissell tapped the hymerkin, which hung at his belt and sang: "I am Ser Thissell."

"I have been honored by a trust," sang the slave. "Three days from dawn to dusk I have waited on the dock; three nights from dusk to dawn I have crouched on a raft below this same dock listening to the feet of the Night-men. At last I behold the mask of Ser Thissell."

22

The word ser is ancient Italian and was equivalent to modern day mister.

Two works of fiction I can think of that show its usage in Italian are:

The Decameron/Novel 1, 1
Circle 7, cantos 12-17 of Dante's Inferno

The UTEXAS material is particularly relevant I think because of the way they translate a verse:

"Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?"
Is it you here, ser Brunetto?

As you can see, they left ser untraslated. Being pretty sure that they folks at UTEXAS are pretty learned, this suggests that the term ser originated elsewhere also for the English language.

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    Honorifics are often left untranslated. – evilsoup Apr 6 '15 at 8:48
  • @evilsoup I remember commenting that you had a good point about honorifics being left untraslated, I didn't really think about that. However, that comment along with a few others misteriously disappeared. Weird. – damix911 May 15 '15 at 14:54
  • Comments are meant to be transitory on Stackexchange sites, so it's probably just that a wandering mod came and pruned them back. – evilsoup May 16 '15 at 10:00
8

See "sir" in the Oxford English Dictionary, in which "ser" is given as a variant in Middle English (ca. 1200-1500)

3

Ser is a commonly used polite form of address in Fantasy & Science Fiction. It is generally used when the polite form of address for the individual is unknown, particularly when the sex of the individual is unknown or the society is gender neutral.

I think however, the term is undergoing a meaning shift in some cases to simply be a polite form of address for a male only.

I can not remember the first novel I encountered this term in but similar words include: Hir, Hirself, etc.

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    Can you reference any of these works of fiction which use "ser" as a gender-neutral term? If it's "commonly used", I've completely missed it somehow. – duskwuff Apr 6 '15 at 0:45
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    David Brin uses "ser" as a gender-neutral honorific in his Uplift series. (from The Uplift War, Pt. I Ch. 6: Delightful, surprising creatures, he thought. Only here, for instance, would one hear such a pure, ancient form—addressing a female leader as “ma’am.” On other Terran-occupied worlds, functionaries addressed their supervisors by the neutral “ser,” whatever their gender.) – Joe L. Apr 6 '15 at 3:34
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    So does Greg Bear in Eon. – Andrew Aylett Apr 6 '15 at 13:07
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    In "Heretics of Dune", Reverend Mother Taraza addresses the male Tleilaxu Waff as "Ser Waff" (easily googleable). Both the sex of the person speaking and the person being addressed are known. I always considered it to be an archaicism, Frank Herbert always struck me as something of a language fetishist :-) – Philip Daniels Apr 6 '15 at 15:32
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    In the Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell, he uses "sar" (and only "sar" - not "sir" or "ma'am") as the gender neutral address for the captain of a ship. Likely for similar reasons. – user12183 Apr 6 '15 at 16:43
0

In CJ Cherryh's science fiction Alliance-Union novels (see: Mercanter's Luck, Downbelow Station, Serpent's Reach, Cyteen etc), dating back to the 1980s, "ser" and "sera" are frequently used as honorifics.

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