reeve, sheriff

I’ve lived in Toronto for over four years now, and still differences between how English is spoken here and how it is spoken down south in the States keep surprising me. Today I was reading one of my favorite blogs (Lowering the Bar, a blog on legal humor) and saw a reference to the reeve of Hanover, Manitoba. The blog helpfully defined reeve as “mayor.”

Now I’m a medievalist, and I’m familiar with the word—one that is primarily known from Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale” in his Canterbury Tales—but I had no idea the term was still in use other than in historical contexts. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Canadian political lexicon has several such fossilized terms; another being riding, or a Canadian voting district. Reeve is just another example.

The word comes from the Old English gerefa, a title for a local official or magistrate, often one who supervises the financial affairs of a shire, county, or estate. The -ref root is of unknown origin. The phonological shift from /f/ to /v/ is a common one and in this word can be seen as early as the late Old English/early Middle English period.

In modern use, reeve is mainly a historical term, used to reference medieval officials, but it still survives up here in parts of Canada and in certain pockets of England as a title for modern officials. But the modern use that is probably most familiar is the word sheriff , which comes from the Old English scirgerefa, or shire-reeve.


“reeve, n.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2009.

“sheriff, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

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