The Grammarphobia Blog

Is there a husband in husbandry?

Q: Can you tell me where the word “husbandry” comes from? I assume it once had something to do with husbands and marriage.

A: The word “husbandry” has nothing to do with marriage, at least not in this day and age. And it had nothing to do with marriage when it entered English in the late 13th century.

In fact, the word “husband” itself didn’t mean a married man when it first showed up around the year 1000.

The noun “husband” originally meant a “male head of a household,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The guy could have been married, widowed, or single.

A word-history note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) suggests that the wedded sense of “husband” was derived from the fact that male heads of household were usually married.

The origins of “husband” are Scandinavian. A similar word from Old Norse and Old Icelandic, husbondi, roughly meant a householder. (A bondi in Old Norse was a peasant who owned his house and land.)

It took nearly 300 years for “husband” to evolve into its modern sense of a married man. This meaning was first recorded in about 1290.

That same year, according to the OED, the word “husbandry” entered the language as a noun for the management of a household and its resources.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598): “Lorenzo, I commit into your hands / The husbandry and manage of my house.” (Portia is speaking here.)

In the 1300s another word, “husbandman,” came to mean a farmer or a tiller of the soil, and the word “husbandry” widened to mean farming and agriculture in general, including the raising of livestock, poultry, and such.

This latest sense of “husbandry” survives today. We still speak of “animal husbandry” as a branch of farm management. However, I don’t know of a term for husband management!

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