late 14c., "pertaining to a household," from Anglo-French meignial, from Old French mesnie "household," earlier mesnede, from Vulgar Latin *mansionata, from Latin mansionem "dwelling" (see mansion). Compare Middle English meine "a household, household servants" (c. 1300; also "chessmen"), from Anglo-French meine, Old French maisniee. From early 15c. as "belonging to a retinue or train of servants." Sense of "lowly, humble, servile, suited to a servant" is recorded by 1670s.
"a domestic servant, one of a body of household servants," late 14c., meynyal; see menial (adj.).
name given by Europeans to hired native laborers employed in menial work in India and China, c. 1600, according to OED from Hindi quli "hired servant," probably from kuli, name of an aboriginal tribe or caste in Gujarat. The name was picked up by the Portuguese, who used it in southern India (where by coincidence kuli in Tamil meant "hire") and in China.
Figurative sense of "downcast, brought low, hopeless," is by 1510s. Also in Middle English "cast off, rejected, expelled, outcast," a sense now obsolete. Abject formerly also was a verb in English, "to cast out, expel; to degrade, humiliate" (15c.-17c.). As a noun, "base or servile person," 1530s. Related: Abjectly; abjectness.
"low-ranking domestic servant who performs menial kitchen tasks," late 15c., sculioun, scwlioun, perhaps, with substitution of suffix, from Anglo-French sculier, a variant of Old French escuelier, from escouve "broom, twig," from Latin scopa (plural scopæ) "broom," related to scapus "shaft, stem" (see scape (n.2)). Or it might be an alteration of Old French souillon "scullion" (but this is not attested before 16c.), by influence of scullery. "The word is now generally associated in thought with scullery, which is, however, of different origin" [Century Dictionary].
1680s, "foundation beam of a dam, railroad, house, or other structure," from mud + sill. The word entered U.S. political history in a figurative sense in a speech by James M. Hammond (1807-1864) of South Carolina, March 4, 1858, in the U.S. Senate, alluding to the necessary lowest class of society. In the speech he also took the ground that Northern white laborers were slaves in fact, if not in name. The term subsequently was embraced by Northern workers in the pre-Civil War sectional rivalry.
In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. This is a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air as to build either the one or the other except on this mud-sill. [Hammond]
late Old English cnafa "boy, male child; male servant," from Proto-Germanic *knabon- (source also of Old High German knabo "boy, youth, servant," German knabe "boy, lad"); it is also probably related to Old English cnapa "boy, youth, servant," Old Norse knapi "servant boy," Dutch knaap "a youth, servant," Middle High German knappe "a young squire," German Knappe "squire, shield-bearer." Original sense unknown; Klein suggests the prehistoric meaning might have been "stick, piece of wood." For pronunciation, see kn-.
Sense of "rogue, rascal" is first recorded c. 1200, presumably via sense evolution from "a menial" to "one of low birth," and the low character supposed to be characteristic of such a condition. But through Middle English it kept also its non-pejorative meaning, as in knave-child (Scottish knave-bairn) "male child." In playing cards, "the lowest court card," 1560s.
Previously, the English equivalent of the French valet was normally known as Knave, in the sense of 'serving-lad'. In the seventeenth century it came to be called Jack, from the name properly applied to the Knave of trumps at All Fours. All Fours being a low-class game, the use of 'Jack' for 'Knave' was long considered vulgar. ('He calls the Knaves Jacks!', remarks Estella contemptuously in Dickens's Great Expectations.) When indices came in, it was obviously preferable to use 'J' rather than 'Kn' to avoid confusion with 'K' for King. Jack has since become the normal title of the lowest court, though 'Knave' can still be heard. [David Parlett, "A History of Card Games," 1991]