Words from the Nerd Side

Husband

“Husband” comes from the Old English bōnda meaning master of a  household.  Why hus, meaning house, was added is up for debate.  One suggestion is that it made a nice compound word to translate the Latin paterfamiliās, meaning head (father) of the family. I personally think there was more influence from the Scandinavian languages, where, for example, Old Icelandic is sbóndi; Norwegian, husbond; and Old Danish, husbonde.

Husband as head of the household is the earliest meaning found in extant documents, occurring in the West Saxon Gospels, from about the year 1175. It survived well into the 1980’s, when some door-to-door salesmen would ask me if my husband, the head of the household, was home.  As a single graduate student, I often took offense. The only worse offense was when they asked if I was the lady of the house, which usually meant they were selling something I was sure I didn’t want.

Our usage of husband as the male partner in a marriage occurs a bit later, about 1250. I find that timing interesting,  as marriage was declared a sacrament by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. I remember accompanying my parents to the nursing home to visit to my mother’s father, a man who had grown up in North Georgia in the early years of the 20th century. I was taken aback when he introduced my father to the nurses as “Catherine’s man.” Then I remembered my Old English professor talking describing people in the southern Appalachian mountains using Old English syntax and language, much like Canadian French has several holdovers from 17th century European French. I had another light bulb moment when perusing a 1920’s marriage ceremony where the celebrant pronounces the couple “man and wife.”  

The use of husband as a person caring for some resource comes into usage at much the same time as the male marriage partner, around 1250, first appearing as the term for a farmer in Physiologus. This meaning is extended to an appointed manager of a household or an establishment, in the Polychronicon in 1387. As a later example, the Minutes of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1674 refer to the agent of a ship’s owner as a ship’s husband, responsible for the supervision of the ship’s business while in port.

The winning entry for most interesting usage of husband I found in the Oxford English Dictionary (my go-to insomniac reading) is, “with reference to the sexual system of Linnaeus, a stamen.” It appears in a letter from J. Logan dated 19 June, 1736. A close second is the husband tree, a tree or vine supporting a grapevine, from Arte of Rhetorique, 1553.

There is also the related term of  husbandry, which survives to this day as animal husbandry, but that exploration will have to be the subject of another post. 

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