Words from the Nerd Side

Wife

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. 

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