With the change of spelling and pronunciation came a narrowing of meaning. ‘Person’ originally had both its present-day meaning and, from the 11th century, could also refer to a vicar or rector as the ‘person’ of the parish. By this was meant that he was the ‘legal person’ who could sue or be sued in legal proceedings concerning his benefice. This latter meaning became exclusively attached to ‘parson’, so that ‘person’ was left with only its present-day meaning.
‘Parson’ was originally a term of some dignity – the 18th century jurist William Blackstone described it as “the most legal, the most beneficial, and most honourable” title that a parish priest can enjoy – but it has now lost caste and today has a more or less colloquial or familiar ring. ‘Person’ itself derives from Latin ‘persona’, which refers to the mask worn by actors in classical times.