So where did the word bride come from? Granted, the initial meaning of bride is not entirely clear, but neither is it hopelessly opaque. Whatever the interpretation, the bride has always been a woman who will soon become a wife, and the mystery surrounding the sought-after etymology comes as a surprise, regardless of whether the initial sense of the noun was “the woman to be married,” “the woman after the consummation of the marriage rite,” or even “daughter-in-law” ~ “a new female member of the adopting family.” We are partly in the dark because we don’t know whether the word is ancient, with its root in the misty Indo-European, or a Germanic coinage. As noted in the post two weeks ago, bride has exact cognates in all the Germanic languages, but nowhere else. However, that need not have been such a formidable obstacle in our search for its origin.
The strange thing about the word for “bride” is its obscurity not only in Germanic (this fact was also noted in the previous post). The Celtic word is equally impenetrable, and the Slavic name remains a matter of debate. What is so mysterious about it? Are all such words really opaque, or do the benighted etymologists sometimes seek the answer in a wrong place? In each language group, the problems are different, so that a clever blow won’t solve all of them.
The following Latin phrase has been found in a text by a third-century Latin grammarian: “Venus Mater quae Frutis dicitur” (“Mother Venus who is called Frutis”). Frutis is akin to Latin frutex and means “shrub, bush.” On discovering Frutis, those who associated the word bride with the consummation of marriage and emphasized the aspect of fertility in bride were ready to announce the problem solved. But, presumably, we need a word meaning “young woman” or “wife-to-be,” or something like it, rather than “bush,” even if the reference is to a fruit-bearing shrub. To make matters worse, nothing is known about Frutis. Perhaps it is a garbled name of Aphrodite transmitted to the Romans by Etruscan speakers. After all, no one has ever called Venus Frutis (except in the text quoted above).
Among others, Frutis has been compared with the word for “rut; mating season” (German Brunst), with reference to “excitement.” Yet it is hard to imagine that bride originally meant “eager for intercourse, mad with desire.” While speaking about ancient brides, we are in the legal or ritual, rather than emotional or physiological, sphere. In an Old Icelandic farce, the god Thor, accompanied by the wily Loki, flies to the giants’ world (the giants are the gods’ mortal enemies), to regain his hammer. Thor is disguised as the bride of the giant who hopes to marry the goddess Freyja and who believes that he sees her. Thor, forgetting where he is, eats so voraciously and drinks so much that the giant grows suspicious, but Loki puts his mind at rest by saying that the bride has been so anxious for the giant’s embraces, while expecting this encounter, that she has not eaten or drunk anything for a long time. I have great doubts that a similar situation gave rise to the Germanic word for “bride” and will also repeat the rule trodden to death in this blog, namely, that one word of unclear origin should never be invoked for the explanation of another unclear word. When this rule is violated, the result invariably comes out wrong.
In historical research, linguists try to find cognates that look reasonable from the phonetic and the semantic points of view. Yet not only Franz Bopp (an astute and incredibly prolific philologist) but also Jacob Grimm compared bride (that is, Germanic brūth-) with Sanskrit praudhā “bride,” literally “she who has been brought home,” though the vowels don’t match. This comparison has not been fully abandoned even today.
In some cases, initial br– in Germanic goes back to mr-, and there have been attempts to find the evasive etymon along those lines. They don’t look persuasive, and I’ll skip them here. Birth and other br– words seem more promising as the etymons of bride than the words mentioned above. Brood and bread were compared with bride, allegedly meaning “she who produces offspring,” long ago. According to the latest hypothesis known to me, Germanic brūth– may go back to būthr-, with the result that bride meant “planter, begetter.” The more ingenious and convoluted etymological reconstruction is, the greater the chance that it is merely a display of the scholar’s jeu d’esprit, or fantasy run wild.
The impression left by this rundown on the conjectures presented above is that we are on a wrong track. I have no proposal to offer, but I would like to justify my statement by citing two examples showing that etymologists should treat women (or at least the words for “women”) gingerly. Example No. 1. Wife is a word as obscure from the etymological point of view as bride. Numerous attempts have left us nowhere. Here, I was so audacious as to suggest my own etymology (see the post for October 12, 2011; much to my dismay, I see that our correspondents still add comments to old posts; thus, while looking at what I wrote about wife, I discovered for the first time a note added in 2017; how can I be expected to find such additions? Please, always write comments on the page for the most recent post!). If I am correct, the protoform of wife did not originally mean “a female married to a man” but referred to an entire clan (hence the word’s neuter grammatical gender), and all attempts to “decipher” wife as a certain kind of woman, naturally, failed. Example No. 2. A Scandinavian myth tells us that the names of the first human beings were Askr and Embla, originally two trees, but the gods gave them clothes and turned the pair into a man and a woman. Askr means “ash,” but Embla is impenetrable: there is no such tree name. The existing etymologies are uninspiring legerdemain. I suspect that Embla was not a tree name at all, but perhaps some word for “wood”: the pair might designate a stick, part of a sacred tree (Askr), and its recipient (Embla).
A somewhat similar situation confronts us in dealing with bride. Strangely, the bride is supposed to be the person whom the husband takes home, but he is called bridegroom (groom is an alternation of Old Engl. guma “man”; compare German Bräutigam), so “bride’s man.” Shouldn’t the bride have been called the prospective husband’s woman, especially in patriarchal societies? Also, as is known, bridal goes back to bride + ale. Once it was a noun meaning “ale drinking”, but the deceptive group –al turned it into an adjective. Obviously, at the wedding feast, a ceremony of great importance, people drank to the health of both newlyweds (as they still do). Why then only bridal? The Scandinavian word for “wedding” (Swedish bröllop, etc., literally, “bride-running”; the reference to the original custom is not quite clear) also has the root cognate with Engl. bride. Everything in the wedding seems to have centered on the bride.
One gets the impression that initially brūth– was the name of an institution or a ritual rather than of a person. If so, some word beginning with br- may furnish a clue to the origin of bride, but ideally, it should mean “competition” or “dowry,” or “union,” or “progeny”—anything that is connected with the treaty allowing a man and a woman to become husband and wife. Etymologists were probably close to the sought-after root, but the word did not necessarily mean “a nubile woman.” On the other hand, bride may have had a root whose existence we don’t even begin to suspect. By contrast, the history of the words for “husband” is simple. In Germanic, the husband was just “man.” Wife and bride are quite different. The riddle remains unsolved. The important thing is to ask it correctly.
Featured image credit: Rosemary Flowers Blue by Hans. Public Domain via Pixabay.