Fay Clayton Writes

Marriage is taking a battering these days, losing credibility, the more’s the pity. The very words of the ceremony seem to be changing or taken seemingly, with a grain of salt. The words, meant to be a solemn promise, now seem as if to be, “I take you, Mary/John to be my wedded wife/husband right up until I get fed up with the whole thing and then you haven’t a chance.”

Good marriages and family life are the very structure of a healthy society, and the marriage of two people, loving and faithful until life ends, is a precious achievement.

The Romans knew marriage and indeed we have words from them, for they had maritare, to marry, maritus, husband, marita, married woman all very neat. Things are more interesting when we turn to our English words: engage, wed, husband, wife.

Engage arrived in English in the 15th century, taken from the French. It has the intrinsic meaning of making a pledge. Though it has adopted other meanings and uses we can engage in battle, or have an engaging smile, its base meaning still implies a certain faithfulness.

Wed too, has the inner meaning of ‘pledge’. A wedding is a serious affair, not to be undertaken lightly. ‘Wed’ signifies a binding, a permanence, a faithfulness. This Old English word has been with us for many centuries.

Bride, from Old English bryd, signifies a woman about to be married or just married; groom, a man just married or about to be.

Wife, also from Old English, is defined as ‘a woman joined to a man by marriage’. The various other formations suggest a busy person: goodwife, fishwife, housewife. However, ultimately no-one knows the origin of the word wife.

But with husband we plunge straight into obligation, responsibility. For this word divides into two thus: hus, house + band, bonded; a husband is one ‘bonded to a house’. He did not wed until he could provide a home.

Times have changed, but there’s certainly room for thought in the ultimate meaning of these words: engagement, wed, wife and husband.

When we turn to the Greek we find intrinsic beauty. The land of the ancient Greeks was populated with nymphs – beautiful, kindly creatures living in the mountains and valleys, fields and forests, rivers and lakes. They filled the springs to brimming, were ever watchful of the needs of crops and orchards, flocks and herds and were the originators of curative springs. The people made altars for them, right there in their habitats. Beauty and goodness were attributed to nymphs, and, yes, you’ve guessed it, nymph was the word for bride.

From this we have our nuptials.