Two opposite forces act on the brain of someone who sets out to trace the origin of a word. Everything may seem obvious. To cite the most famous cases, coward is supposedly a “corruption” of cow herd and sirloin came into being when an English king dubbed an edible loin at table (Sir Loin). Such fantasies have tremendous appeal, for they show that the homegrown linguist, unlike some simple-minded observer of facts, will not be deceived by appearances. But folk etymology also enjoys creating problems where there are none. Here perhaps a well-known example is the attempt to prove that beef eater is not an eater of beef but beaufetier ~ buffetier in disguise. One cannot know in advance when naiveté should be recommended (a beef eater is a beef eater, and that’s all there is to it) and when sophistication is the best policy (stop deriving coward from cowherd!), but research usually clarifies matters. Etymological games with honeymoon resemble those with beefeater.
Doesn’t honeymoon mean what it says? The newlyweds enjoy being together and liken the blissful time to honey. Perhaps the only hitch is moon (why moon?), but in the past moon was a synonym for month, and the two words are related (only the wayward history of English vowels drove a wedge between them: compare south and southern, white and Whitsunday, holy and holiday, as well as lead, keep and their preterits led, kept). Early dictionaries detected no problem here. The OED quotes Samuel Johnson’s 1755 definition: “the first month after marriage, when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure.” But it adds: “[o]riginally having no reference to a period of a month, but comparing the mutual affection of newly-married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full than it begins to wane…” The oldest recorded citation of the word honeymoon is dated 1546; it occurs in a work by John Heywood, the epigrammatist. However, the proposed etymology goes back to Richard Huloet, the author of Abcedarium [sic] Anglico-Latinum… (1552), who refers to the “proverbial” sense of the word, as he elucidated it. In 1656, Thomas Blount, the compiler of a dictionary titled Glossographia, abbreviated Huloet’s rather lengthy note (“It is honey now, but will change as the moon”). The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, as usual, agrees with OED but states that honeymoon was explained “by early authors with reference to affection of married people changing with the moon.” The word newly-married has been replaced with married (which, of course, makes all the difference in the world), while the plural (authors) produces the impression that we have massive evidence on this point.
If by 1552 honeymoon had not only become a current word but even acquired its association with a waning moon, it is strange that no earlier references to this allegedly proverbial association turned up and that later the only people who remembered the word’s origin were dictionary makers (lexicographers). Didn’t the witty Heywood coin honeymoon and Huloet repeat somebody’s joke? I am afraid he did. A century later Blount seems to have copied from his predecessor without giving the etymology a minute’s thought. Lexicographers are notorious for plagiarism. The OED is expected to know the ultimate truth about English words, and few dare disagree with its verdict. Even Skeat, who included honeymoon only in the last edition of his dictionary, reproduced the entry from the OED verbatim and suggested that we consult that source. Some of the most authoritative dictionaries followed suit, but others, especially in the United States (Webster’s International, among them), stuck to the old derivation: honeymoon, they say, is honey + moon. Despite all my admiration for the OED, I am not sure that Huloet should be trusted. Perhaps he began to hate his wife too early or was a misogynist, or indulged in folk etymology.
Nothing is known about the circumstances in which honeymoon was coined. The verb to honey “talk fondly, coax” existed. Our first and only memorable example of it comes from Shakespeare. Hamlet, shortly before he sees the Ghost in his mother’s bedroom, keeps hurling insults at her: “Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/ Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love/ over the nasty sty—” Gertrude pleads: “O! Speak to me no more; / these words enter like daggers in mine ears;/ No more, sweet Hamlet!” Note the irony of honeying being followed by sweet. Shakespeare used current slang: to the extent that we can judge, honey “address someone as ‘honey’” is roughly contemporaneous with Hamlet.
Words corresponding to honeymoon abound in the language of the world. I have not been able to find a single example of belated wisdom or disparagement attached to it. “Month of kissing, joy, caress, white bread/ wheat bread/ fine bakery,”—these are the usual names in the European languages for the time following the wedding, and how could it be otherwise? Incidentally, the most common reference is to month, rather than some indefinite period. The literal meaning of German Flitterwoche, first recorded in 1539 (now in the plural: Flitterwochen; Woche means “week”), is not quite clear. Its literal gloss in most English dictionaries is “tinsel week,” but flittern probably meant “laugh; giggle.” One of the senses of laugh in the Middle Ages was “to be happy.”
When the same word has been attested in English and the Romance languages, suggesting a loan from French into English is natural. Frank Chance, an astute etymologist to whom I devoted an essay almost two years ago, wrote in 1883: “…nobody is prepared, I imagine, to assert that the French got lune de miel from us.” He seems to have been mistaken. The expressions in Romance are French lune de miel, Italian luna di miele, and Spanish luna de miel. Engl. moon can be understood as “month,” but lune/luna makes sense only if we agree that they were translated from English. The route must have been from English to French, and from French to several other languages, not only Romance. Some German authors also experimented with Honig “honey” in this phrase, but Flitterwoche(n) has won out. In France, it was Voltaire who used lune de miel for the first time in his play Zadig (1747). Honeymoon predates it by two centuries.
Two more etymologies of honeymoon have been offered: one from Old Icelandic (fanciful, not worth discussing), the other from the ancient practice for newly-married couples to drink metheglin, or mead, a fermented liquor made from honey, for thirty days after the wedding (for fertility’s sake?). However widespread this custom may have been in the north of Europe, it hardly gave rise to the word honeymoon in 16th-century England.
Married life outlasts the honeymoon. Here are the names of the anniversaries, not all of which are known as well as the three main ones. First: cotton wedding, second: paper wedding, third: leather wedding, fifth: wooden wedding, seventh: woolen wedding, tenth: tin wedding, fifteenth: crystal wedding, twentieth: china wedding, twenty-fifth: silver wedding, thirtieth: pearl wedding, fortieth: ruby wedding, fiftieth: golden wedding, seventy-fifth: diamond wedding. Such is the story of conjugal felicity, processed honey from beginning to end.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as and An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”