The Independent knew just what to call the senior Conservatives who savaged William Hague in a letter to the paper last week. They were "Tory grandees", said its headline, and its rivals did the same in their follow-ups, though some of them put "grandees" in quotes. The Daily Telegraph's Boris Johnson described them as "so-called" and had quotes round them to show his dislike of them, which was over-egging it I thought.

Grandees are not nearly so grand as they used to be anyway. The Elizabethans took the word from the Spaniards (the Spanish for great being grande ) to mean a Spanish bigwig, which makes me think it began by being pronounced to rhyme with "randy", and in fact it was sometimes spelt "Grandie". So whence the "-ee" and the shift of accent? Well, one way of showing contempt for foreigners is to mispronounce their names.

But our own early grandees, whether bishops, dukes or statesmen, were clearly in charge, whereas now they tend to be retired gents (one hears of no women grandees) or has-beens; another puzzle. The Mail's David Hughes wrote last week of "the rebel grandees", which would once have been a contradiction in terms. An old-style grandee wouldn't have been a rebel, he'd be putting rebels down.

I suppose the suffix got unconsciously confused with the French past participle, as in passe and roue and various English -ee words used of people who have had something happen to them, like trainees and evacuees, they are at the receiving end, like legatees, and the "returnees" - forcibly repatriated foreign workers - of whom the Guardian's man in Bangkok was inelegantly writing the other day. There is also our old friend the escapee, a word much despised by purists who point out that escaping is an active deed and that such people ought to be called escapers. But the idea is that the deed is in the past, they have escaped. And grandees have been grand.