The word mate comes to us from the Middle Low German māt, meaning comrade or fellow. It is of Germanic origin, but unlike many words for basic relationships between people it does not date back to Old English. Rather it was introduced in the Middle English period, first appearing c.1380 in the manuscript Sir Firumbras:
Maumecet, my mate, y-blessed mot þou be, For aled þow hast muche debate.
(Maumecet, my mate, blessed may you be, For you have laid aside much dissension.)
Use as a form of address appears by the turn of the 16th century. From the c.1500 Pilgrims Sea-Voyage which appears in F.J. Furnivall’s Stations of Rome:
“What, howe! mate, thow stondyst to ny, Thy felow may nat hale the by;” Thus they begyn to crake.
Mate has been used as a naval rank for centuries. From the 1485-86 Cely Papers:
To the bottswhayn and hys matte.
Surprisingly, the sense of the word meaning a spouse or lover appears relatively late. It only dates from the mid-16th century. From Hugh Latimer’s 1549 1st Sermon before Edward VI
For to graunt oure kynges grace suche a mate as maye knyt hys hert and heres.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton