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When I married my wife I made her an honest woman.
Does that mean she was dishonest before?
Usually these days people think of an honest person as one who doesn’t lie or cheat on their expense claims but when the word honest came into the language 700 years ago it had a slightly different meaning.
Someone who was honest was someone who held an honorable position.
This is the meaning honest brought with it from French where it had appeared a thousand years ago from Latin.
Suddenly the phrase “make an honest woman of her” makes sense, she is entering the honorable state of marriage.
The “honorable” meaning has now gone out of the word honest but in Shakespeare’s time both meanings were in use, and although he doesn’t use the phrase with respect to marriage, he does use the term “honest woman” several times and with both the “honorable” and “not-dishonest” meanings.
It was thirteen years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 that the “to make an honest woman of” phrase first appeared in literature.
Another more recent phrase is “honest injun”—as schoolboys might say when swearing that they aren’t exaggerating about something.
This usage dates first from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer in 1876. Sources differ in their speculation on where this phrase came from.
Certainly injun means a “North American Indian” but while the Oxford English Dictionary thinks the phrase refers to secure promises made by Indians, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says early settlers referred to themselves as honest injuns in contrast to the dishonesty they felt the Indians displayed.
Finally, Hugh Rawson in his book Wicked Words feels the phrase used to be used derisively, meaning someone who was an honest injun wasn’t honest at all.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.
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