Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
For many people, there’s more than love in the air today — there’s a lifelong commitment. While thousands of lovers young and old ask their sweetheart to “Be My Valentine” for the day, many others will be asking for a more permanent arrangement: After Christmas and Christmas Eve, Valentine’s Day is the third-most-popular day to propose marriage.
Which means that tomorrow morning, multitudes of people will share the exciting news that they have committed to a life of wedlock, a binding together of two people — legally, ethically, and romantically — for the rest of their lives.
The single and cynical among us (myself included) might focus on the lock part of that word, imagining that wedlock was coined to describe how someone who has wed is locked into a monogamous relationship. Wedlock is the lock that binds you to “the old ball and chain.”
Real etymology isn’t quite so cynical.
The wed part of wedlock hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Though to wed began more generally as a word for “to pledge,” it has a long, long history of meaning specifically “to unite in marriage.”
The lock in wedlock has nothing to do with chains or keys, whether physical or metaphorical. It comes from the Old English suffix -lac, meaning “actions or proceedings” — similar to the role played by the Latinate suffix -ation. Wedlock (originally wedlac) is the last remaining common word in Modern English to derive from that Old English suffix.
The spelling of wedlac changed over time through the process of folk etymology, which transforms a word by replacing lesser-known or misunderstood parts with more common and understood forms. As the -lac suffix became more obscure, people replaced it with -lock, a word they knew well.
Modern English is filled with words altered by folk etymology. It’s what turned the Middle English angnail into hangnail, the Spanish cucaracha into cockroach, and the Middle English bridegome into bridegroom. And if you’re one of the many who find yourself affianced this Valentine’s Day, we hope only one of these three words figures into your forthcoming nuptials.
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