Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The origins of some words to do with relationships

This blog post is all about some words and phrases that can be associated with relationships.

‘Honeymoon’ may sound romantic, but one theory suggests it actually has far less romantic roots. Many old languages had one word for ‘month’ and ‘moon’ as it takes approximately one month for the moon to orbit the Earth. It is the temporal sense from where ‘honeymoon’ derives: the ‘moon’ in ‘honeymoon’ served to remind newlyweds that their period of blissful harmony had an expiration date. It was Dr Johnson who defined ‘honeymoon’ as ‘the first month after marriage when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure’, hinting that, rather cynically perhaps, things may go downhill afterwards. On the other hand, a more optimistic theory suggests the word comes from a recent period in European history when a couple would drink diluted honey to symbolise the sweetness of the early weeks of marriage.

‘Husband’ is Norse in origin and goes back to the Vikings. Their word for ‘husband’ was ‘husbondi’ (‘hus’ – house / ‘bondi’ = the man who dwells in it), placing the man firmly as the head of household.

Perhaps if you’re lucky, your husband may be handsome. ‘Handsome’ once meant 'easy to handle'. Because it had a positive meaning, over time the word broadened to mean someone who is attractive and desirable, usually applied to men. Interestingly, ‘buxom’ derives from a German word meaning ‘pliable’ or ‘flexible’. Because gentle-mannered women were considered attractive, the word went on to describe a good-looking woman, and it has since moved on to describe more specific ‘female qualities’.

Some may have a buxom wife. ‘Wife’ comes from Old High German ‘wib’ which translates as ‘veiled one’.

‘Bride’ comes from the Old English ‘bid-ale’ which meant a celebration in honour of an individual. There were many ‘ales’ during the Middle Ages – ‘leet-ale’ was a drunk up and a ‘church-ale’ was a religious celebration. Over time, ‘bid’ became ‘bride’ and the ‘ale’ was dropped altogether. Moreover, the phrase ‘always the bridesmaid but never the bride’ comes from a 1924 advert for mouthwash.

At a wedding ceremony you may feel ‘jubilation’. The word derives from ‘jubilee’ and its  associated celebrations. ‘Jubilee’ itself comes from a Hebrew word meaning a ‘horn' or 'trumpet’ which sounded at the start of a jubilee year.

Emotions and feelings at a wedding service may be genuine and from the heart. The Latin for ‘heart’ is ‘cor’ which is the root of ‘cordial’ because doctors administered it to stimulate the hearts of patients. To ‘wear the heart on one’s sleeve’ translates as to be open, honest and to let one’s true feelings be known. Margaret Thatcher said, in 1987, that ‘to wear your heart on your sleeve isn’t a very good plan; you should wear it inside, where it functions best’. But Thatcher didn’t coin the idiom: rather, it derives from Medieval times when jousters on horseback would tie a ribbon or other symbol to their sleeves to show the love and support he had gained from a female.  

‘Spinster’ was originally a woman who used to spin – unmarried women tended to do this to make a living at home. ‘Spinster’ has dropped in usage in recent decades whereas ‘bachelor’ has stayed, probably because ‘spinster’ began to denote more negative connotations of stereotypical unmarried, childless women.

‘Bachelor’ comes from Old French ‘bacheler’ which evolved from a Latin word meaning ‘farm worker’. It was first used in the late Middle Ages when a Knight Bachelor was a young man who had aspirations to become a knight but was too young to display a heraldic emblem. In those days, bachelors were keen to lose their bachelor status, although today’s bachelors don’t seem to be in any rush at all, depending on your own point of view.


And if it doesn’t work out, there is always divorce. The word ‘divorce’ derives from the Latin ‘divortium’ which means ‘a fork in the road’: a literal parting of the ways which began to be applied to people who go in their different directions. This is also the root of the word ‘diversion’.

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