The Foley scandal, in which a Florida congressman has been found to have sent sexually explicit instant messages to teenage assistants has brought the word page to fore. Why do we call young attendants and messengers pages, and is the word related to the pages in a book?
The word page is from the Anglo-Norman word page, meaning young male servant. This sense dates to around 1225 in French and makes its English appearance shortly afterwards in the form of surnames like Serlo le Page (1234), Walt. Page (1236), and Will. le Page (1240). The earliest cite in the OED3 for the term as an ordinary noun is from c.1300 in the poem Havelok the Dane:
Was ther-inne no page so lite that euere wolde ale bite.
The ultimate origin appears to be from the Greek παιδιον, meaning boy.
Page was used over the centuries to mean a young servant, especially one attending a person of high rank, and by 1781 the word was being used to mean a boy or young man employed by a hotel or other establishment as a waiter or messenger. From William Cowper’s 1781 Truth:
She yet allows herself that boy behind;…His predecessor’s coat advanced to wear, Which future pages yet are doomed to share.
On the left side of the Atlantic, the word also came to be used for a boy who is employed to run errands for legislators (now, of course, pages can be girls too). From the Boston Evening Transcript of 18 February 1840:
A page took them to the Clerkthe Clerk handed them to the Speaker.
The verb to page dates to the 16th century, originally meaning to wait on or attend someone. From The History of Kyng Boccus & Sydracke, believed to be from 1537:
A chyld…is both tendar and grene…Unto he come to greatter age That he may hym selfe page.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the verb had also come to mean to use a page to summon someone. From L.L. Bell’s 1904 At Home With Jardines:
The name of Jardine was paged through the corridors and billiard-room and café.
And from the New York Sun of 21 August of that same year:
A bell boy is called. "Here, page Mr. Smith, Room 186," the clerk will say. The process of "paging" Mr. Smith consists of calling out his name in the dining and other public rooms of the hotel.
By 1936, the term was being used to refer to electronic announcements. From the RCA Review of 1936:
General announce and paging systems.
Finally, this sense of page is not related to the word for one side of leaf of paper. While that sense is also from an Anglo-Norman word page, it ultimately comes from the Latin pagina, a piece of writing. The Latin pangere means to compose.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton