Words from the Nerd Side


Jenny Kaczorowaki, With This Ring

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wife has its origins in the Germanic languages, among them Old Frisian wif, and Old High German wīb. What I find interesting is that Middle High German wīp has pejorative connotations, which have carried into the present day with Dutch wijf and German Weib being “chiefly derogatory.”

The earliest usage of wife in Old English (spoken from the 5th century to the late 11th century) was for a woman, married or unmarried. Wiifa was the Old English translation of feminarum, Latin for women, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. This usage only exists today in the compound nouns like fishwife, mentioned below.

Another early usage is as the female head of the household. Wife appears in the Old English Laws of Cnut, where the law distinguishes between the legal rights of a wife and  those of a  husband. The Oxford English Dictionary further explains that this usage exists today in the expression “wife of the house.” I have not heard that usage–perhaps it is British, where in the United States, we tend to hear “lady of the house” from telemarketers.

Moving into Middle English (spoken from around 1150 to 1500), “wife” became part of the name of a saleswoman of a particular commodity. In 1287, the Leet Jurisdiction in the City of Norwich refers to “Gundrada le puddingwyf.” As late as 1825, J.T. Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words refers to “an apple-wife, a fish-wife, a tripe-wife.” Most common to me is my mother admonishing my sisters and me not to yell at one another like fishwives.

The most common usage today is that of a married woman, which also has a long history. King Alfred’s Old English translation of Boethius’ De Consolatio Philosophiae refers to a wife in that common modern sense.

There is fascinating reading in the Oxford English Dictionary, especially in how it gives insights into common expressions.  For example, I found that the 1811 Lexicon Balatronicum refers to a “wife” as a fetter fixed to one leg,. That bit of historical etymology gives a new view of the colloquial pejorative of a wife as a “ball and chain.” Another related usage is that of wife-ridden, meaning henpecked, which first appears in 1685, in M. Hildesley’s Religio Juriprudentie. It gives some resonance to “get off my back.” doesn’t it?

Finally, I found the idea of a “wife sale” the most bizarre usage listed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when divorce was not an affordable option for the poorer classes, a wife would be sold at public auction to male bidders, sometimes with her consent. Such a sale is in the opening scene of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. I have to say, it seems to leave too much to serendipity for my comfort. 

Words from the Nerd Side


“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. 

Words from the Nerd Side

Fee and fees

Courtesy of Melinda Van Lone

Why is there a picture of a cow underneath the title “Fee and fees”? Because the word comes from the Old English word, fioh, féo, meaning cattle or property. Trace it back far enough, and one arrives at Latin pecū, which also means cattle.  The Latin word for money, pecūnia, also ties cattle and wealth.  In modern English, we get “fees” from the Germanic roots of our language, and “pecuniary” from the Latin roots, but they both lead us to money and cattle.

However, I don’t think I can take Bossie to the bursar at the University to pay my son’s fees for his summer classes.  It is an entertaining thought, though. To be fair, the use of fioh or féo to mean movable property has been around for some time. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first use of féo as money as the Codex Aureus, circa 870; the earliest usage of féo as moveable property is in Ælfred’s translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, circa 888.

I went to graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington, getting (among other degrees) a certificate in medieval studies. The street running by several of the undergraduate dorms, ending near the Libraries, is Fee Lane. I always wondered why it was called Fee Lane.  It seemed an insensitive reminder to parents of the cost of higher education.  It was only when I team taught a class in Medieval Legal History that my esteemed and learned colleague told the class the history of “fee.” Now I share it with you, as the beginning of a dive into etymology and the intricacies of the English language.

Is there a word you want to investigate?  Leave it in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do.