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Friday, July 5, 2013

Brides and gooms

It's summer, so high season for weddings. And this year, thanks to the recent legal decisions in the US, there will be even more weddings than usual, as gay couples can tie the knot (here in Ontario this has been possible since 2003). Who will be the bride and who the groom?

Bride is a very old word. It goes back to the Anglo-Saxons, and meant then exactly what it means now. (For "bridal", see this post. 

But the interesting thing is that for a while in the 14th and 15th centuries, "bride" applied to both sexes, so you could have a male bride or a female bride, and perhaps with same-sex marriage, this trend will be revived; who knows. In fact, a gay friend of mine who got married shortly after the law in Ontario permitted same-sex marriage told me that he and his partner had to decide which of them was going to be listed as "bride" on their marriage licence application. The Ontario government has fixed this since, opting for the ever-so-romantic ...

"Applicant #1" and "Applicant #2!

American states which have only recently allowed same-sex marriage may have to reconsider the wording on their marriage licence applications.

As for the other half of the couple, in Old English the word was brydguma, guma being a poetic word for "man". But the word guma died out in the Middle Ages, and by the 16th century, people could no longer figure out why a man would be called a bridegoom. By Shakespeare's time,  people had reinvented r-less "bridegoom", substituting a word they did know: "groom". In Old English "groom" had meant "boy", but by the 1400s was applied to any male person, so "bridegroom" effectively meant "bride-guy".

Non-English speakers must often wonder why the same word designates a husband on his wedding day and someone who looks after horses. "Groom", still meaning "guy", did not apply specifically to a servant looking after horses till some time later, in the 1600s. By the 1800s, the noun had become a verb as well (gosh, yet another instance of that nefarious trend!), meaning "care for horses", and, a century later "care for one's appearance". 

Marriage equality has had an impact on dictionary definitions. There was quite a stir when I announced in 2003 that the Canadian Oxford Dictionary had changed its definition of "marriage" (the first dictionary to do so) from
  • 1. the legal or religious union of a man and a woman.   
  • 1. the legal or religious union of two people.  

This seemed to me a self-evident change, since the reality had changed in Canada, so the dictionary had to keep up, just as we no longer define "car" with the OED's first definition:
 1.  a. A wheeled, usually horse-drawn conveyance; a carriage, cart, or wagon.

I was quite proud of how on the ball we were, but suffice it to say that many vociferous people did not view this change quite so dispassionately!

We did not at the time change the definition


noun a married man esp. in relation to his wife.
since we had to wait to see if usage would in fact change, or whether "partner" would be preferred to "husband". One could say that that lexico-weasel word "esp." gave us some wiggle room in comparison to other dictionaries' definition:

noun a married man considered in relation to his wife:

However, "husband" and "wife" are now clearly used of married same-sex couples, so it is time for dictionaries to get with the program.

Dearly beloved, our survey of these wedding-related words is complete. You may now kiss the applicant.

For "nuptial", see this post
For "wedlock", see this post.
For "confetti", see this post.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.