So Long, Partner

The curious staying power of husband and wife

“Let me start by saying that I absolutely adore the man I married,” writes a blogger on the Web site A Practical Wedding. “I just don’t want to call him husband … It feels archaic.” Fair enough: The original meaning of husband is “master of a house”; the word and its counterpart, wife, respectively date back to the 11th and ninth centuries. Surely, in a time of cohabitation, same-sex marriage, and women who ably bring home the bacon, these terms must be on their way out?

Well, no. When, last year, the Associated Press advised reporters to “generally” limit the use of husband and wife when referring to people in same-sex relationships—couple and partner were to be used as default terms—a semantic firestorm ensued. Among those protesting the move was gladd. Wrote one of the group’s leaders: “If you are a man, and you are married, you are ‘generally’ a husband—regardless of the gender of your spouse. If you are a woman, and you are married, you are ‘generally’ a wife—regardless of the gender of your spouse. Period.” Husband and wife were worth fighting for. The AP eventually backed down: its reporters now typically refer to married men as husbands and married women as wives, regardless of sexual orientation.

One reason for the durable appeal of husband and wife is surely this: gender-neutral alternatives are sorely lacking. Many of them don’t feel special enough—take the bureaucratic-sounding partner. Or companion, which once referred to a drinking buddy and later became a coded word for someone in a same-sex relationship. Sometimes they feel too special, like consort, which has royal connotations. Significant other is a twee mouthful, and though it was once used as a synonym for spouse, today it doesn’t necessarily convey marriage. If we look still further back, we find a whole array of now-obsolete words that sound like they came out of Game of Thrones: fere, leman, yoke-fellow, half-marrow, paragon, helpmeet.

Spouse, one of the most constant terms, has been used since about 1200. But it has never seriously challenged the primacy of husband or wife, both of which appear much more frequently in the Oxford English Corpus, according to Katherine Connor Martin of Oxford University Press. “I don’t hear people using it in an offhand way,” says Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of Vocabulary .com, “unless they’re being funny about it—like ‘the plural of spouse is spice.’ ”

Partner, for its part, dates to the 14th century; its marriage connotation goes back at least as far as Milton’s Paradise Lost. In earlier times it “was often used to confer a sense of equality within the marital relationship, over and above wife and husband,” the Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper observes. “Interestingly, the ‘spouse’ use of partner predates the ‘sexual partner’ sense, and the first citation we have for it is ‘partner of my life.’ I am hearing, more and more, the inversion of that phrase: use of life partner is on the rise.”

Perhaps there is something to this refashioning of the old. Even as we come up with creative new phrasings for other facets of modern life, Zimmer predicts that husband and wife will continue to see plenty of use. “There’s a certain kind of comfort with those terms,” he explains. Maybe the simple fact is that we prefer to rely on the words with which we’re most comfortable to describe the paragons, fellows, and half-marrows with whom we feel most comfortable.