Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Husband and Wife

For hundreds of years, beginning in the 9th Century, vast swaths of English countryside were colonized and controlled by the Norse — farmers and traders and raiders from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These settlers were generally descendants of the Vikings that had been attacking the English coast. They spoke Old Norse, a language very closely related to the Old English spoken at that time in England. In fact, the languages were so closely related that they were probably more like dialects. So everyone could understand the Norse invaders perfectly when they raided a town, killed the menfolk, seized the homes and land, and forced the women to marry them.

But the collision of related-but-not-quite-the-same dialects was prone to mixing and confusion. Among the Norse, a free man who owned land and cattle was called a bondi (which literally meant "dweller"); and if he had a home, too, he was called a husbondi (from hus = house). Among the English, such a man was called a wer (which is the same root now found in werewolf); but by the 1300s, such was the influence of Norse on English society, the word wer had all but disappeared.

Meanwhile, the English had two words in common use that meant "wife": wif meant "woman" (usually married; of unknown origin), and husbonde (related to the Norse husbondi) meant "mistress of the house". Perhaps understandably, the Norse called their new wives wif and not husbonde. And so the pair husbondi and wif was established.

Oddly enough, by the 1300s, the word husewif ("house"+"wife") — and thus exactly parallel to husbondi — was becoming common. Around 1600, husbondi and husewif had developed shortened forms hubby and hussy. (As is unfortunately common in many languages, the feminine form gradually developed a more derogatory meaning than the masculine.)

Spiritually husband has energies of caretaking, home-making — more specifically, one whose choices and promises bind him to provide a hearthfire. But wife, perhaps counterintuitively, is not a word of servitude, but of force of will, of selfhood, freedom, and prosperity.

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