Q: Why does a husband refer to his spouse as “the wife,” not “my wife,” and a wife likewise to “the husband,” not “my husband”? Any insight would be greatly appreciated.
A: English speakers have been using “the” in place of a possessive pronoun like “my” or “your” in reference to relatives (husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and so on) for at least two centuries.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjective “the” here is being used “colloquially with names of relatives, as the wife, the mother = my (your) wife, mother.”
The earliest written example in the OED is from an 1838 story in Historical, Traditionary and Imaginative Tales of the Borders, a series of books published from 1835 to ’40 by the Scottish writer John Mackay Wilson: “What shall I say to the wife?”
However, we found an earlier example in Old Mortality, an 1816 novel by Sir Walter Scott: “Cuddie soon returned assuring the stranger ‘that the gudewife should make a bed up for him.’ ”
We suspect that the usage may be of Scottish origin. The Scottish National Dictionary, in its entry for “the,” describes the usage as “Gen. Sc.” (General Scots), but notes that it’s also found in “in colloq. and dial. Eng.”
Here are some more examples from the OED for “the” used in place of a possessive pronoun:
“ ‘It’s a long while since the governor [that is, my father] was here,’ remarked Mr. Charles Larkyns, very unfilially.” (From The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an 1853 novel by Cuthbert M. Bede, a pseudonym for Edward Bradley, an English clergyman.)
“The Mater will do anything for me.” (From The Mystery of Mirbridge, an 1881 novel by the English writer John Payne.)
“The mother and sisters would like to call upon you.” (From The American Girl in London, an 1891 novel by the Canadian writer Sara Jeannette Duncan.)
“The pater will say I’m a fool, the mater’ll say the girl isn’t good enough for me.” (From Somerley, School-Boy and Undergraduate, a 1900 autobiographical novel by Gilbert Swift.)
“[I] sent off an express to Patty and the Mother last night.” (From Richard Carvell, a 1901 novel by the American writer Winston Churchill.)
Why did the usage develop? We don’t know, and we haven’t seen any theories about it.
The earliest citation above (“the gudewife”) uses the phrase affectionately. Perhaps the next citation (“the wife”) is a shortening of “the good wife.” Or perhaps not.