Q: I’m curious about “better halves.” When did the term come to mean spouses?
A: When “better half” appeared in the mid-16th century, it meant “the larger portion of something” or “more than half,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest OED citation is from a religious treatise defending the Roman Catholic Church against criticism by the Church of England:
“it woulde well lacke the better halfe of jx. yeres [nine years].” From A Return of Untruths (1566), by the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Stapleton, responding to a treatise by John Jewel, the Church of England’s Bishop of Salisbury.
The usual sense now, which the OED defines as “a person’s husband, wife, or (in later use) partner,” appeared in the late 16th century.
The first citation is from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published posthumously in 1590, four years after the author’s death:
“My deare, my better halfe (said hee) I finde I must now leaue thee” (the dying Argalus is speaking here to his wife Parthenia).
The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for plural versions of “better half.” The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of digitized books are from the 18th century. Here are two of them:
- “ ‘I am happy to acknowledge, that, though we have no gods to occupy a mansion professedly built for them, yet we have secured their better halves, for we have goddesses to whom we all most willingly bow down.’ ” From Evelina (1778), by the English novelist Fanny Burney. (Lord Orville is speaking to Captain Mirvan.)
- “I trust the example of our better halfs will tempt the ladies all to emulate those virtues which have made us for ever renounce the follies of fashion, and devote our future lives to that only real comfort which heaven has bestowed on mortals—virtuous, mutual, wedded love.” From The Ton; or Follies of Fashion (1788), a comic play by the Scottish author Eglantine Wallace. (Lord Raymond is speaking to Lady Raymond.)
In case you’re wondering, both “better halfs” and “better halves” were common in the late 18th century, but “better halves” has been the usual plural for the last two centuries, according to a comparison with Google’s Ngram Viewer.
The OED says the phrase “better half” has had two other senses, “a close and intimate friend” (1596) and “a person’s soul” (1629), but the first is now rare and the second obsolete.
We should add that in the spousal sense, “better half” is often used affectionately or in a semi-humorous way.
Finally, here are a few other alternatives for “husband” or “wife,” and the dates of their earliest OED citations: “spouse” (before 1200), “partner” (1577), “helpmate” (1815), and “ball and chain” (1921).