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A common symbol in modern weddings it the image of knot. The phrase "tie the knot" as a euphemism for marriage that is also commonly recognized. Where does this originate from?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The metaphor of a knot is one of binding, as two people are bound together in marriage.

Shakespeare uses the metaphor, but not the exact phrase:

Send for the county. Go tell him of this.

I'll have this knot knit up tomorrow morning.

But it's earlier still, in The Legend of Saint Katherine c 1225:

Swa wit beoð ifestnet & iteiet in an, & swa þe cnotte is icnut bituhhen unc tweien.

Or as a rough stab at a translation into modern English:

As we are fastened & tied together, so the knot is knitted between us two.*

It may relate to knot-tying as an actual part of wedding ceremonies (and sometimes betrothal ceremonies), as is found in rituals from throughout the world from ancient times until the present day.

Or it may just be a metaphor applied in the phrase alone.

Being so old, it's probably impossible to tell which.

Either way, with knot being in English for so long as a symbol of marriage, and tying being how one forms them, "tie the knot" was pretty inevitable from that starting point.


*Some notes on translation, since they might be of interest in their own way:

I'm tempted to have it "...us twain" rather than "...us two" but while twain is Modern English, it's not common in Contemporary Modern English. It would be a closer translation.

A little is lost in translating wit to we and unc to us as Modern English doesn't have pronouns that specifically refer to two people. "We two" and "us two" would be more accurate but more clumsy.

Knitted would be a rare choice for a knot today—not unheard of, but rarer than once was the case (e.g. see the Shakespeare quote as an example in Early Modern English). Tied or fastened would perhaps be a better translation for that reason, but it would introduce a repetition that scanned a bit silly to my eye.

I'm not happy about the translation of "in an" as "together", there's a bit of guesswork there. Often it's the little prepositions and conjunctions that are trickiest for a non-expert like me, as they're used quite differently in Modern English. I'd be open to other suggestions.

Similarly, swa is the root of the Modern English so but also used as we would use that, then (consider how Irish English still uses so where other dialects would only use then) and as. This mean that the form "as ... as ..." (e.g. "as white as snow") was more flexible in Old and Middle English than today. Translating sadly loses the poetry of the repetition.

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Thank you; I appreciate you finding references from such an early stage of the english language. I don't understand what the excerpt from 1225 means, but I would vote up if I could. –  Raymond Valdes Apr 29 at 1:07
    
Would it be rude to ask if you could rewrite the (Old English?) excerpt in contemporary English? I think I recognize beoð as being both, bituhhen as between and tweien as twain, the rest is a mystery. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 29 at 6:22
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@Mari-LouA Middle English thankfully; I am totally hopeless at Old English but can make a stab at translating Middle. You were correct on bituhen and tweien, but beoð is in fact are, as in the form of the verb "to be" for the first person plural. –  Jon Hanna Apr 29 at 9:57

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