Q: My companion and I were wondering about the origin of the term “companion,” so we’re going to our go-to source.
A: We, in turn, are going to some of our go-to sources.
Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, a “companion” is “someone who shares your ‘bread’ with you.”
Ayto says English borrowed the term from Old French in the 14th century, but it’s ultimately derived from the classical Latin com (with) and pānis (bread).
When “companion” originally appeared in Middle English writing, it meant someone who spends time with another or accompanies another on a trip. The earliest two citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are dated around 1300:
“To symon Cumpayngnoun ic habbe y-ȝyue power of disciplyne” (“To companion Simon I have given the power of discipline”). From a Palm Sunday poem.
“He bitok him sir henri is sone to be is compainoun, wiþ him to wende aboute” (“Sir Henri betook his son as his companion to wend about with him”). From The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history.
Interestingly, the noun “companion” came to mean a spouse in the 16th century, hundreds of years before it took on the modern sense of a domestic partner.
The first OED citation for “companion” used for a spouse is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “Yet is she thyne owne companyon and maried wife” (Malachi 2:14).
The dictionary describes the evolution of the usage this way: “Originally: a spouse, esp. a wife. Now usually: a member of a couple in any type of permanent or long-standing relationship, esp. if not married; a lover, a partner.”
The earliest Oxford example for “companion” used in this modern sense is from an article in the April 27, 1972, issue of Jet about the funeral of Adam Clayton Powell, who had represented Harlem in Congress:
“Powell’s companion of recent years, Darlene Expose, came to the church early.”
The first OED citation for “companion” as a member of a same-sex couple is from a June 2, 1996, article in the New York Times about the architect Philip Johnson and the art collector David Whitney:
“The tall, baby-faced Mr. Whitney was sitting in a sunny corner of the one-bedroom apartment that he and Mr. Johnson, companions now for 36 years, share at the Museum Tower in midtown Manhattan.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)