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Thoughts on the origin of the word “bride” [part 1]

The blog named “The Oxford Etymologist,” which started on March 1, 2008, and which appears every Wednesday, rain or shine (this is Post no. 663), owes many of its topics to association. Some time ago, I wrote about the puzzling Gothic verb liugan “to lie, tell falsehoods” and “to marry” (August 15, 2018) and about the etymology of the English verb bless (October 12, 2016). Ever since I have meant to tell a story of the English word bride. To someone, the bride may appear all dressed in white, but an etymologist roams in the impenetrable gloaming of suggestions, hypotheses, and rejoinders.

Most important of all, it is not clear what the word bride once meant. Much of the marriage institution practiced by the speakers of the Indo-European languages is maintained from the oldest period, but the terminology changes for the reasons that are often hard to account for. So let me state at the outset that the origin of bride is unknown, which, in principle, can be expected, for terms of kinship are notoriously obscure. Even the seemingly transparent Slavic word for “bride” (nevesta, stress on the second syllable) has been discussed up and down and roundabout, but its history remains to a certain extent debatable. The noun bride is Common Germanic (Dutch bruid, German Braut, and so forth; Gothic, recorded in the fourth century, had the same word, namely, brūþs; þ = th in Engl. thick). Even today, bride (at least in English) can be understood in two senses: the word refers to either a woman engaged to be married or a woman on the wedding day (when she is dressed in white).

The earliest books in the Germanic languages are, predictably, translations of the Bible, because literacy, if we ignore the Scandinavian and English runes, came to the West and East Europeans with the conversion to Christianity. The Bible was translated from Greek (as happened when the Gothic bishop Wulfila undertook the translation or when the country of origin was Byzantium, as happened in Kievan Rus’) or from Latin. The word for “bride” occurs in the New Testament (for example, in M X: 35, which is extant in Gothic, and it is the only place where it turns up in the part of the text we today have), but its exact meaning in Greek and Latin is no less controversial than in Germanic.

Before the wedding night. Image credit: Cupid and Psyche plaster model by Antonio Canova. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

With regard to Germanic, about hundred years ago, two proposals about the meaning of bride competed. According to one, a woman acquired the name of the bride once the marriage was consummated. The scholars who shared this view, searched for the etymology of bride among the words connected with intercourse and fertility. The other party emphasized the woman’s moving to her husband’s family. Yet the direction in which its proponents tried to explain the word’s origin was more or less the same, for, however one may look upon the situation, a bride is a woman who will become a wife and mother.

A good deal of historical, literary and ethnographic evidence confirms each view. The wedding night is a big event in folklore and old poetry, and ethnographic observation points in the same direction as oral and written tales. According to the beliefs recorded in many societies, evil spirits will try to attack and abduct the virgin on her first night, and apotropaic magic was needed to avert their influence. In a fantastic form we find the situation described in a Norwegian fairy tale: the hero marries a beautiful maiden, but she is really a troll woman, and he has to take off her three skins before she becomes his faithful (fully human) wife. In Russian folklore, the hero is warned to lie but not touch or kiss his bride for three nights. The idea that, once a maiden loses virginity, she is domesticated and invulnerable to the influence of the spirits is widespread.

The first night is believed to be fraught with such danger that in some societies the defloration of the virgin was the prerogative of the local priest (this is, allegedly, the origin of the infamous right of the first night, which later became the universally hated privilege of the amorous tyrant; the right is called jus primae noctis in Latin and droigt du seignior in French; both terms are late). And woe to the priest who failed to perform the ritual, sometimes public! Perhaps the most often cited description of such an episode in European literature is the defloration of Brünhild by proxy (Siegfried) in the Middle High German Lay of the Nibelungen. From the same source we know about the newlyweds sleeping for several nights with a naked sword between them.

One of Zeus’s many wedding nights: “Danae” by Rembrandt. Image credit: Rembrandt_Danae by pixelsniper. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Whether the sword is a phallic symbol and whether taking off the bride’s three skins is the not too subtle shorthand for the subjugation of women is something I’ll let advocates of the symbolic treatment of literature to decide. Likewise, I will not argue against the ethnographers and anthropologists who state that the right of the first night originated as a wise step, for an inexperienced young husband would have messed up the whole affair while dealing with an equally inexperienced virgin. In the present context, only the fact matters: all over the world, the wedding night was looked upon as a most important rite of passage for the woman. Consequently, the word bride might have originated from it.

One of Zeus’s many wedding nights: “Danae” by Titian. Image credit: titian_danae_shower_gold_1554 by Art Gallery ErgsArt – by ErgSap. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
On and before the threshold of a new life. Image credit: For the Rest of Their Lives by Gades Photography. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Moving to the husband’s house was another rite of passage. The situation varies from society to society. In some places, the prospective daughter-in-law (more often to be tyrannized not by the domineering male but by her mother-in-law) is carried by the bridegroom or his friends over the threshold of her new house. Sometimes she is strewn with petals, nuts, and fruit (an act of naïve sympathetic magic to ensure fertility). Especially well-known is the throwing of a shoe after the carriage taking the newlyweds to church or to the young husband’s home. This ritual has many variations, but its implication is always the same: the bride is expected to leave behind her “old shoes” and get into the new ones. Sometimes both he and she change their shoes. This insistence on shoes is natural: we go down the path of our life wearing shoes (somebody else’s or our own, as the case may be), try to fill another person’s shoes, and so on. According to this interpretation of the wedding, the word bride can be understood in light of the transitional custom: from the parents’ house to the house of the husband.

I’ll resume this story in two weeks: the next post will be devoted to the “gleanings.” But, to anticipate the frustrating conclusion (“origin unknown”), I should note that one of the problems with the word bride is that it is short (and has always been short) and that, disregarding the predictable phonetic differences, it is the same all over Germanic, while etymology thrives on length and variety.

Featured image credit: Bride and Groom Wedding Day Shoes by Photos by Lanty. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    There is no evidence that the right of the first night ever existed.

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņş

    Rather mysterious connection with marriage has an animal called marten. Greek νυφίτσα (nyfítsa) (“weasel”), from νύμφη (nýmfi) (“bride”). There is some potential for brain-marrow parallels, kind of barter-marten. In Latvian archaic mārša has retained sense of sister-in-law, while Lithuanian marti-marčios could be also a bride. I’m curious what could tradition regarding martens would be and why exactly these animals.

  3. Bernard Dumont

    En Lorraine , le terme ” bru ” est encore utilisé dans le sens de daughter-in-law, Schwiegertochter. Bru lui aussi descend du terme gothique qui a donné bride, Braut.

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