The Grammarphobia Blog

The language of gay marriage

Q: Have you noticed the new usage (even on … or especially on … NPR) that “husbands” can be female and “wives” can be male in gay marriages? I support the gay desire for legal marriage, but this reversal of gender seems offensive to common sense.

A: The language and the law are changing concerning marriage, and some people are offended by the changes. But you may be confused about what is actually happening with the language.

From what we’ve observed, women in same-sex marriages generally refer to each other as wives or spouses, and men in same-sex marriages generally refer to each other as husbands or spouses.

It would be extremely rare in a gay marriage for a man to be called a “wife” or a woman to be called a “husband,” except perhaps humorously.

We should mention here that the meanings of “husband” and “wife” have changed dramatically over the years. In fact, the two words had nothing to do with marriage when they entered English more than a thousand years ago. We’ll have more on this later, but let’s get back to your question now.

What you’ve probably heard on NPR and elsewhere is reporting or commentary prompted by a Feb. 21, 2013, announcement of the following addition to the AP Stylebook Online:

husband, wife Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.”

Mike Oreskes, AP senior managing editor, said the new entry “lays down clear and simple usage,” but some people found it confusing and wondered if it meant the Associated Press might refer to a woman as a “husband” and a man as a “wife.”

James Joyner, writing in the blog Outside the Beltway, said AP “seems to imply that ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are interchangeable terms when they’re in fact gender-specific.”

“The entry seems to suggest that one of the dudes in a gay marriage is the husband and the other the wife when, in fact, they’re both husbands,” Joyner wrote.

As we’ve said, this isn’t the usual practice. And such a usage contradicts the latest, inclusive definitions of “husband” and “wife” in the two standard dictionaries we consult the most.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “husband” as a “man joined to another person in marriage; a male spouse.” It defines “wife” as a “woman joined to another person in marriage; a female spouse.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) similarly defines “husband” as “a male partner in a marriage,” and “wife” as “a female partner in a marriage.”

So, according to American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s, two men married to each other would both be “husbands,” and two women married to each other would both be “wives.”

Of course a husband or a wife could be referred to in a lot of other ways: “spouse,” “partner,” “helpmate,” “better half,” “ball and chain,” and so on.

Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, brought a personal as well as a lexical perspective to a March 29, 2013, NPR report entitled “Gay Marriage and the Evolving Language of Love.”

Kleinedler spoke about the linguistic confusion that resulted in 2009 when his husband died in an accident after five years of marriage:

“The funeral director very innocently and not meaning to offend at all—she was an older woman and she was extremely helpful—was stunned by the form. She turned to me and says, ‘Well, which one of you is the wife?’ And you know, I kindly explained, ‘No, we’re both husbands.’ ”

A few months earlier, Kleinedler had been involved in updating American Heritage’s definitions of “marriage,” “husband,” and “widower” to encompass same-sex couples.

We imagine that the funeral director’s confusion isn’t all that unusual these days. More than a few people may be startled to hear a man refer to his husband or a woman refer to her wife. Will this usage seem ordinary one day?

Former Congressman Barney Frank, who married his husband last year, thinks so. The Democrat from Massachusetts said on the NPR program that the usage was already losing its novelty.

The 73-year-old Frank said he hadn’t noticed much linguistic confusion over husband-husband marriages: “Even among people my own age, I have not found that very widespread.”

“The whole point of this is that we are not subject to the same gender roles,” he said.

As we noted earlier, the words “husband” and “wife” didn’t have anything to do with marriage when they first showed up in English.

We pointed out in a posting a few years ago that the noun “husband” meant a “male head of a household” when it appeared around the year 1000. The man could have been married, widowed, or single.

It took nearly 300 years for “husband” to evolve into its modern sense of a married man, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

And as we said in another post, a wif or wifman was a woman, whether single or married, in Anglo-Saxon times.

By the year 900 or so, wifman began to lose its f. Over the next five hundred years, it went through many spellings until it settled down as our modern word “woman.”

Meanwhile, wif went through various spellings until it emerged as “wife” in the 1400s, when it could mean a married woman or a woman (single or married) involved in a humble trade: “fishwife,” “alewife,” and so on.

In case you’re wondering, a man was a wer or a waepman (literally a “weapon-person”) in Old English. The term manna and other early versions of “man” referred to a person regardless of sex.

By the 1400s, manna had become our modern word “man,” while wer and waepman had fallen out of use.

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