This word for an “unmarried man” has had several meanings over the centuries. The English word bachelor comes from the Old French bacheler, meaning a “young man.” The word ultimately comes from Latin *baccalaris (the asterisk designated a root that has been reconstructed but is not found in extant literature). The word may be connected to baccalaria, a division of land, hence a bachelor may have originally been a “man who owns land.” The root ultimately comes from bacca, or “cow,” and baccalaria may originally have meant “cow farm.”

The English word appears around the year 1300 in the sense of a “young man.” From The Early South-English Legendary found in Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 108:

Tweye Ioliue louerdingues [...] Þis tweiye yongue men [...] þis twei wilde Bachilers.
(Two jolly lords [...] These two young men [...] These two wild bachelors.)

The sense of an “unmarried man” appears at about the same time. From The Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester in London, British Library, Cotton Caligula A.11:

Mi leue doyter [...] Ich þe wole marie wel [...] To þe nobloste bachiler þat þin herte wile to stonde.
(My dear daughter [...] I want you to marry well [...] To the noblest bachelor to which your heart inclines.)

Also about the same time, the word was being used to mean a “young knight” or “aspiring to knighthood.” From Arthur and Merlin in Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates 19.2.1 (The Auchinleck Manuscript):

Þo was þer made a turnament
Þat was swiþe noble & gent
Of bacheler & yong knigt.
(There was made there a tournament
That was very noble and gentle
Of bachelors and young knights.

The sense of “young man” was quickly transferred to the realm of academia, and bachelor began to be used for a “man who had attained the lowest level degree in university.” From Piers Plowman A, in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet. a.1 (Vernon), dated to around 1390, although this A version of the poem was written by William Langland some twenty-five years earlier:

I sauh þer Bisschops Bolde and Bachilers of diuyn.
(I saw there bishops bold and bachelors of divinity.)1

In the nineteenth century, bachelor apartment began to be used to mean “quarters occupied by a bachelor.” From Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit of 1857:

Ah, but he lived in a sweet bachelor-apartment.

In current Canadian usage, this has been clipped and a bachelor is a “one-room apartment,” what is known in the United States as a “studio.” From an advertisement in the Toronto Globe and Mail of 13 January 1968:

Opposite High Park, Bachelors, [...] 2-bedrooms and 3-bedrooms.2

Of course, the “unmarried man” sense is the one in most common use today.

1Middle English Dictionary. s.v. bacheler. University of Michigan. Accessed 26 September 2010.

2Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd Edition, s.v. bachelor. Oxford University Press. Accessed 26 September 2010.

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