Let No Man Put Asunder

SB 1306, authored by Senator Mark Leno, took effect in January of this year and replaced the terms “husband” and “wife” with gender-neutral language.  This was done as a way to recognize all married couples in California, and to accommodate the partners of same-sex marriages.

While the logic for this move is easy to follow, it’s unfortunate that society seems to have little knowledge or understanding as to where the terms “husband and wife” or “man and wife” originated.

Back in the day — and I mean way back in the day — the word man meant a male or female human being.  The word was found in many languages including, but not limited to, Old Saxon, Old German, Old Norse, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and other languages.  A variation of the word was also found in Sanskrit as manuh and in Avestan as manu.

It’s easy to see, however, that if a male or a female human being was referred to as a man, that it could cause considerable confusion, especially in light of the fact that female human beings were considered chattels in marriage.

And so, by the 1300s, it was determined that to differentiate between the male human being and the female human being, a wer (or were) was a man and a wif (or wife) was a woman.  To be wed meant two persons were recognized as a couple building a life together.  And wiving referred to the marriage specifically.

Interestingly enough, however, in the 1300s, the law recognized two persons as being wed, but did not necessarily mean a were and a wife in the traditional sense.  From this came the word wifman which made crystal clear that the human being in question was female.  In time, the f fell silent and she was known as a wiman and where many a wiman gathered, they were known as wimans.  It wasn’t long before the s fell silent as well, and many females were called women, pronounced as it’s currently pronounced.

Shortly thereafter, the word husband became part of the English language and it referred to the male head of a household.  The word was from the Old Norse word husbondi which meant master of the house.

The wife was understood to be the passive partner of the husband, and since most couples were composed of a were and a wife, in heterosexual marriages, the male was the husband and the female, being a chattel, was the wife (the passive partner).

Over the years, the marriage vows pronounced couples “man and wife” or “husband and wife” but this was not done to the exclusion of those who were same-sex couples.  It was announced this way to identify who the head of the household would be which, of course, did away with the awkwardness of possibly offending the couple by asking which was the husband and which was the wife.

By 1883, British society understood that the passive partner of a homosexual couple was to be called the wife, and very few people in society created a scene over this fact.  It was what it was.

Knowing this, perhaps now people will realize that the uproar over changing the language in a state law was wholly unnecessary.  The original terms were neither sexist nor discriminatory.  They were, by all historical accounts, inclusive and always have been.

In other words, state marriages have, by definition, been misinterpreted by lawmakers over the years.  A perusal of the laws as applied in 13th century England makes this clear.  The terms “husband and wife” or “man and wife” always have been inclusive, not exclusive.

Now that the language is being sanitized and neutralized, the concern will once again arise about how one will know who the head of the household is and who is the passive partner.  And all this will open up a whole new can of worms, and cause far more problems than SB 1306 was hoped to have solved.

Elyse Bruce

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3 Responses to “Let No Man Put Asunder”

  1. Dharmesh Says:

    Do we really need to know who runs the house?

    • Elyse Bruce Says:

      In every relationship — personal or business — there is always one person who is ultimately responsible for making the final decision even though all involved have an equal say in that final decision. To that end, it’s important to know who “runs the house” so to speak.


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