Where Does the Word Née Come From?
For especially common French loanwords, you probably use them without thinking too much (or at all) about their literal meaning. Crème brûlée, for example, translates to “burnt cream,” which sounds considerably less appetizing than the dessert actually is; and déjà-vu means “already seen,” which needs no further explanation.
Some you may use without even realizing they’re French—like cul-de-sac, for “bottom of the sack” (or “butt of the bag”). RSVP is another sneaky loanword: It’s an initialism for répondez s’il vous plaît, meaning “Reply, if it pleases you.”
Unless you speak French, the word née probably falls in one of those two categories. Its literal translation is simply “born,” from the verb naître (“to be born”). The -ée ending indicates that it’s modifying a feminine noun, which helps explain why English speakers have historically used it when mentioning a woman’s maiden name. So when you say “Hillary Clinton, née Rodham,” you’re basically saying “Hillary Clinton, born Rodham.”
If you’re referring to a man who’s changed his name, you should technically use né—the masculine ending—the same way that you’d use fiancé for a man engaged to be married (whereas fiancée is the feminine form). But né hasn’t quite caught on in the same way, most likely because when the term entered the English language, people were only really using it to talk about women’s maiden names.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written instance of that happened in a 1758 letter sent by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. “The advantage of being casually admitted in the train of Madame de B., née O,” she wrote. Other notable authors adopted the tradition throughout the 19th century; William Makepeace Thackeray, for example, mentioned “Rebecca Crawley, née Sharp,” in his 1848 classic Vanity Fair.
During the latter half of the 20th century, writers started getting more creative with their usage of née. “The flight attendant, née stewardess, singsongs over the loudspeaker,” William Safire wrote in a 1981 piece for The New York Times Magazine. A decade or so earlier, a book called Molecular Approaches to Learning and Memory had modified the phrase “behavioral modification” with “née transfer of training” to let readers know that the terminology had changed. In short, no longer is née just for someone (again, usually a woman) born with some other name, but for anything or anyone formerly known as anything or anyone else.