Senior 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.
Before you get up in arms about gender roles and marital fairness, please understand that the redundancy referenced in the title isn’t about culture, politics, or gender. It’s purely etymological.
See, the word husband — or husbonda in Old English — traces to an Old Norse compound made up of hus “house” and bondi “dweller, inhabitant.” House husband, then, literally reduces to the redundant “house house-dweller.” The word husband and its predecessors didn’t simply indicate “house-dweller,” though; it has long meant “master of the house.”
When we look at wife alongside of husband, we get a glimpse at what could have been in English. Long ago, wife (or wif at the time) didn’t necessarily indicate a matrimonial state, but just referred to any woman or lady. (Housewife, then, breaks down to “house-lady” or, more colloquially, the lady of the house.)
You might recall from Halloweens past that the first half of the word werewolf comes from the Old English wer “male human.” At the same time that wer existed, the word man was also developing — though at first it simply meant “person,” regardless of gender. We saw the same thing with girl, which was simply a word for any child; yes, there was time when “adults and children” would have been expressed as something akin to “men and girls.”
Over time, though, man drifted toward naming the male specifically; members of the “fairer sex” were given the label wifman (literally “lady-person”), which is the antecedent of the modern-day word woman.
But as the ancestors of man and woman became more common, the wif and wer, at risk of becoming redundant, narrowed in scope. Wif, of course, became wife as we know it today — indicating specifically the female in a married pair. Wer — for a while — did exactly the same thing; before husband caught on, wer was a normal pairing with wif.
Fast forward to Modern English: If husband had never come around, wedding officiants across the English-speaking world might today end the pre-kiss portion of the nuptial ceremony with the alliterative phrase, “I now pronounce you were and wife.”
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