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Love and marriage

by Mellissa Martinez

My friend Marilyn and I met at Chaparral Elementary School in the 1970s. Every day, we walked to school together, and on weekends, we hopped our backyard fences to meet in the strawberry field (now the 210 freeway). We spent summers skateboarding down Claremont streets, playing foursquare at the top of our cul-de-sac, and hitting the handball against any garage door that looked unoccupied. 

On Saturday, Marilyn and her fiancé, Sergio, will tie the knot. In honor of their big day, I have decided to explore just a few of the quirky connections that exist within the language of love—and marriage.

The expression ‘tie the knot’ comes from a Celtic custom of handfasting, or tying the bride and groom’s hands together with ribbons, which was actually a symbol of engagement rather than marriage. This is also where we get the term ‘to ask for someone’s hand in marriage.’   

Thankfully for Marilyn (and all other brides, for that matter) the connotation of the word ‘bride’ has changed considerably. Back in the day, when a woman married she often moved in with her husband’s family where she could look forward to a life of cooking for the entire brood (and having babies, too). In fact, the words ‘bride,’ ‘brood’ and ‘breed’ are all believed to have come from the same origin—to cook.  

The Indo-European root word, bhreu-, meaning ‘to boil, bubble, cook, effervesce, burn’ made its way through Latin and Germanic languages, transforming into several words related to heat, boiling and cooking. ‘Brood’ and ‘breed’ both emerged from the etymological connotation of warming or incubating. Other bhreu-derived words include ‘fervent,’ ‘ferment,’ ‘brew’ and ‘embroil.’

‘To wed’ comes from the Old English weddian, ‘to pledge oneself, vow or betroth,’ from the Indo-European root word wadh- meaning ‘pledge or redeem a pledge.’ This also led to the Latin vadis, which became the modern ‘bail.’ In Germanic languages the word became wette, ‘a bet or wager,’ which gave us the wedding-relative ‘engage.’

Although linguists don’t entirely agree with this next assertion, some have suggested that the strolling music band, ‘mariachi’ and the word ‘marriage’ are related, both coming from the French mariage. The band is rumored to have gotten its name in the early 1940s from the fact that the musicians typically performed at Mexican wedding celebrations. 

No wedding celebration is complete without a toast—often given by the father of the bride. ‘Toast,’ meaning a piece of heated bread, came to English in the mid-1300s, but the metaphorical sense of congratulatory words and good wishes didn’t emerge until several centuries later in the late 1600s.

People had long been adding pieces of spiced toast into their wine for flavor. During the reign of Charles II, party-goers began drinking to a beautiful or popular woman who was so honored that just the mention of her name was believed to infuse the wine with a wonderful aroma—just like toast. The woman was then referred to as the ‘toast of the town,’ an idiom that remains with us today.

The term ‘honeymoon’ has a tint of irony in its origin. The ‘honey’ refers to the sweetness of the new marriage, while ‘moon’ indicates the inevitable end to the bliss. The moon goes through a one-month cycle, which is also the length of time that the ‘period of tenderness and pleasure experienced by a newly-wed couple’ is expected to last. Think that’s bad? The Germans give newlyweds only a week. Their version of honeymoon is flitterwochen, or ‘tinsel week.’

Both Mrs. and Miss come from the word ‘mistress,’ while Mr. comes from ‘master.’ The shift in the meaning of ‘mistress’ over time says a lot about society’s views of women. Initially, in the 1200s, it referred to a woman who governed her home or a skilled female teacher. By the end of the 1400s, it had become a contemptuous address, referring to a woman who was kept by a married man outside of his marriage. All the while, master maintained its authoritative connotation.

In the mid 1400s, the ‘a’ shifted slightly in pronunciation, becoming mister. Even today, a man (married, single or divorced) is referred to as Mr. while a woman is expected to differentiate between Mrs., Miss and Ms.—the latter having emerged in the middle of the 20th century as a way of rejecting the marriage-based label.

Whether she chooses to follow US tradition and be referred to as Mrs. Lemus, or sticks with the long-established Ms. Fay, one thing is certain: I am looking forward to many more years in Claremont together with Marilyn and her Mr. Right.