- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a married man
The history of the word husband is a complicated one, but we probably borrowed it from Scandinavia. The Old Norse word husbondi was used of the male head of a household, pieced together from hus, meaning “house”, and bondi, meaning “dweller”, “freeholder”—or more literally, “one who lives in bond”.
When English speakers started using husband in the Old English period (the Oxford English Dictionary has a record of it in print from late tenth century), it too was used to mean merely “the male head of a household”; it’s from there that the word husbandry, in the sense of management of livestock or resources, derives.
But presumably because the male heads of households tended, more often than not, to be married to the female heads of households, by the Middle English period husband had come to be used of a male spouse, or the male partner in a marriage.
Wife, incidentally, originally meant “woman”; an expanded for, wifman, eventually morphed into woman, while we’ve retained the word housewife—the female equivalent of the original husband—as a word for a woman in charge of running a household.
Want more of these etymological tales? Take a look at The Accidental Dictionary, out now.