By Anatoly Liberman
Wedlock, a native English noun, has, as usual, a Romance synonym, namely, matrimony. We will leave out of consideration the raptures of married life (as a lackadaisical damsel put it in Pride and Prejudice, but I am quoting from memory), and give thought to word origins. Matrimony poses no problems, except for the curious way its meaning developed. Matrimonium, the Latin source of matrimony, contains the root of mater “mother,” and its literal sense is “motherhood,” but in Latin it meant only “the state of being married,” while the plural (matrimonia) meant “married women” and “spouses.” Obviously, at first matrimony referred to a woman’s becoming a wife and a mother.
By contrast, wedlock, though also transparent as regards its form, is much harder to explain. The Old English for wedlock was wedlac (with long a in lac, as in Modern Engl. father). At some remote time, the verb wed meant “pledge.” The difficult part is -lock, from -lac. In 1889 Henry Bradley, the second editor of the OED, published an article titled “Some Obscure Words in Middle English” and wondered what to do with lac, which has been recorded with an astounding variety of meanings: “play; battle; sacrifice; gift; booty; message” and, when combined with the prefix ge- (in gelac), “tumult, commotion; crowd, host.” Students of Old English have offered those glosses to clarify the sentences in which the words occur, and several senses can be combined, for example, “battle” and “booty” (the warrior’s reward), “battle” and “play” (compare play, a modern fencing term), “gift” and “sacrifice.” It is also easy to build a semantic bridge from “play” to “swords’ play, battle; tumult, commotion” and from them to “booty” and “sacrifice” (prisoners of war were regularly sacrificed to the gods eager for offerings). Given enough intermediate sections, such bridges can connect almost any two meanings. The groups “play, sport; battle” and “sacrifice; gift; booty; (?) message” may be different words (homonyms), even if some putative ancient root sanctifies their union.
Alongside lac, there was the Old Engl. verb lacan. The evidence of its senses in various Germanic languages yields “jump; play, dance, swing; mock.” Lacan may be allied to Old Engl. lican “to like” and “to be like someone, resemble.” In Old English, lac became a suffix and occurred in about a dozen recorded words with the approximate meaning “action, practice.” Among them we find brydlac “nuptials” (bryd “bride’), a perfect counterpart of wedlac. Bradley wrote: “I do not think that [in wedlac] the sense of this suffix is derived from the sense ‘play’ (and certainly not from that of ‘offering’) but that it has reference to the root in the sense of ‘resemblance’, as in the adjective like and the noun lic, body.” This knot has never been disentangled, and in the final version of the entry wedlock the OED only says that -lac is a suffix, which it certainly is.
The Old Germanic languages have a great number of words for “wedding.” This is natural, if we look at the rituals connected with the marriage ceremony. They go all the way from obtaining a bride (heroic wooing, ransom, abduction) and bringing her to her new household to drinking the newlyweds’ health at the feast (bridal, now an adjective because of the deceptive appearance of -al, goes back to bride-ale), “great, solemn time” (such is German Hochzeit, a word with a convoluted semantic history), and “lying together.” Both the bride and the bridegroom had to perform numerous elaborate actions. The true meaning of words like Norwegian bryllup (from bryd-lup), literally “bride-run” (or “bride-dance”?), which has cognates outside Scandinavia, remains a partially unsolved riddle. In this context, brydlac, mentioned above, makes more sense than wedlac. Whatever “play” was involved in the lac, one can imagine that the bridegroom participated in some “sport” or that an abduction was staged. But wedlock is not a ceremony; it is the state of being married, and rituals have nothing to do with it. Even lac “gift” is of little help: “a gift given to a bride” will again fit the sense “wedding” but not “matrimony.” Also, Bradley’s “resemblance” sheds no light on the derivation of the word. Did he mean “having the form of a pledge”?
Most probably, -lac was added to wed- mechanically on the analogy of brydlac (just as we can add -ment to pay and get payment, without bothering about what this Romance element… once meant), and trying to find the probably nonexistent deep original sense of the compound will lead us nowhere. Of all the nouns with -lac only wedlock has been preserved, so that today we have nothing to compare it with. In knowledge (a Middle English word), -ledge appears to be related to Old Engl. -lac, but the affinity is remote (compare the voiced end with the pronunciation of Greenwich or hodgepodge alternating with hotchpotch). Middle Engl. knoweleche (this is one of many recorded forms) had a suffix allied to Old Icelandic -leikr and by the same token to Old Engl. -lac, but it may have been derived from a verb of the same type as Modern Engl. acknowledge. In any case, knowledge is unable to explain the origin of wedlock. In Middle English, long a (as in father, not as in lake!) changed to long o (as in British Engl. awe), and in -lok it was later shortened; hence -lock, and an association between wedlock and the idea of a couple “locked” in a union or with the Middle English noun loc “enclosure; settlement.” For completeness’ sake hemlock may be mentioned here. One of its two main Old English forms was hemlic, so that -lock must be a folk etymological alteration of -lic. The same holds for charlock, another plant name (from cerlic). And with this we are out of wedlock.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as 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.”