The Grammarphobia Blog

Does the ending of “alimony” mean money?

Q: What is the meaning of the suffix at the end of the word “alimony”? Does it have anything to do with money?

A: The word ending you’re talking about is “-mony,” and it appears in several English nouns that were adopted from Latin (like “matrimony,” “patrimony,” and “acrimony”).

This word element (it’s technically not a suffix) has no meaning on its own but, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it occurs “in essentially abstract nouns mainly denoting a state, condition, or action.”

Most of these words, the OED says, were borrowed into “Middle English (in some cases through French) or early modern English.” The Latin originals ended in -monia or -monium.

Here are the ones most familiar today and the dates of their earliest OED citations:

“patrimony” (1340), “matrimony” (1357), “ceremony” (1380), “testimony” (1382), “parsimony” (possibly before 1475), “sanctimony” (1541), “acrimony” (1542), and “alimony” (1655).

The latecomer, “alimony,” etymologically means nourishment; the Latin alimonia meant nutriment. Thus it came into English with the sense of an allowance or means of support.

(“Palimony” is a 20th-century invention, originally intended as a humorous or cynical play on “pal” plus “alimony.”)

While we’re on the subject, we’ve always thought it odd that “matrimony” and “patrimony” aren’t masculine and feminine versions of the same thing. Instead, one means marriage while the other means an inheritance from a father.

The Latin elements matri- and patri- are derived from the words for mother and father (mater and pater). So one would think “matrimony” and “patrimony” should be the feminine and masculine versions of something or other, like “matriarchy” and “patriarchy.”

But that’s not the case. Even in classical Latin, the meanings of matrimonium and patrimonium weren’t the flip sides of a coin.

To the Romans, matrimonium meant the state of being married. But patrimonium, says the OED, meant the “property of the head of a household, personal estate, fortune, private chest of the Roman emperors.” And in post-classical Latin it also meant the “estate of the church.”

Those are roughly the meanings of “matrimony” and “patrimony” in English. The word “matrimony” never had to do with property handed down by a mother (though it had that meaning in Old French). And “patriarchy” never meant the state of marriage.

It’s a puzzle and, as we said, the Latin roots are no help.

In English as in Latin, the word element matri- was used, the OED says, in “forming nouns and adjectives with the sense ‘of or relating to relationship through a female line.’ ”

Meanwhile, the word element patri- was used in “forming words with the sense ‘of or relating to social organization defined by male dominance or relationship through the male line.’ ”

So the only parallelism in their meanings is that bit about “relationship through a female [or male] line.” That still leaves the question why the Romans made matrimonium and patrimonium so different.

We came across one sensible explanation in Christopher Francese’s book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (2007):

“The obvious counterpart of patrimony would be matrimony,” Francese writes. “But in Latin, as in English, there is a striking asymmetry between the two.”

For Romans, he writes, “Matrimonium means marriage, but only for a woman. A man ‘leads’ (ducere) his bride into matrimonium, which is literally the condition of being a mother, suggesting that childbearing is the true purpose of marriage for a woman.”

“It would be absurd for a man to enter matrimonium; he ‘takes a wife into his matrimony’ (uxorem in matrimonium ducere),” Francese says, adding:

Patrimonium means not marriage or fatherhood but inherited property and fortune, implying that fatherhood is a vehicle for passing down property. Patrimonium and matrimonium reflect the asymmetrical roles and duties of father and mother in the Roman patriarchal family.”

We found a less serious (and very politically incorrect) explanation in a quote from the Kansas City Star, repeated in a trade journal in 1914: “Matrimony is engineered by the mother and patrimony is supplied by the father.”

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