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From C.S. Forester's Hornblower and the Hotspur:

[The naval captain] rolled his toilet things into his housewife and tied the tapes.

ODO does provide a second definition for housewife which clarifies this usage:

/ˈhʌzɪf/ a small case for needles, thread, and other small sewing items.

Besides its curious pronunciation, I'd like to know how housewife came to mean the above. Any other related information will also be much appreciated.

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Probably similar to the reason those behind-your-back-in-bed pillows are called husbands. – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Dec 27 '12 at 18:32
Is the pronunciation that much more curious than the nautical pronunciations of forecastle, boatswain, mainsail, northeast? – Peter Shor Dec 27 '12 at 18:37
@PeterShor If it is strictly a naval term, perhaps not. I don't know if it is. – coleopterist Dec 27 '12 at 18:38
Etymonline relates hussy to housewife, so perhaps the pronunciation shouldn't be too surprising. – Andrew Leach Dec 27 '12 at 18:40
Thanks coleopterist. I found many more examples in historic documentation of soldiers' belongings including a quote from Rootschat.com in response to "What is a Housewife?": "I actually have a small hussif made of khaki cloth. It was amongst a lot of other bits of sewing equipment in a sewing box I bought in bric-a -brac shop some years ago. I've often wondered about the soldier to belonged to." – Kristina Lopez Dec 27 '12 at 19:09
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The pronunciation of housewife is complicated. According to OED 1 two forms of compounds with hus existed in ME, one with and one without a connective /e/, thus: husbond, husebond (OED 1 is unsure why). In the following couple of centuries, the two forms husewif and huswif diverged further in pronunciation:

  • That without the /e/ elided the /w/ and shortened the vowel in the initial syllable, which developed regularly into /ʌ/; the second syllable was destressed (the ordinary English pattern) and consequently shortened the vowel, yielding such orthographic forms as hussif, hussive and huzzy, which was until recently the ordinary pronunciation for the primary sense of “mistress of the house”.

  • that with the /e/ maintained the long first syllable and the /w/, and then developed regularly into /haʊswaɪf/, with two long vowels, reflected in the modern spelling. According to OED 1, this pronunciation was literary and dialectal into the 18th century, used only of transferred senses; but

the analytical form with long vowel, hūsewīf, hūswīf, houswif, housewife, continued in use and became frequent in Sense 1 in the 16th c., esp. when the shortened hŭswĭf began to lose caste, through its depreciatory sense [hussy]. But many still pronounce huswif, hussif in Sense 1, even when they write housewife.

The connection between hussy and housewife has long been lost, spelling pronunciation has reinforced what was once a dialectal form, and the calling itself has “lost caste”; so people encounter the word today mostly in writing and pronounce it the way it looks — as they do other words, such as grindstone and those nautical terms from the Age of Sail which Peter Shor mentions.

As for the transferred sense of housewife as a small case — this was originally a first-aid kit for spot repairs carried by the housewife herself:

To bring whatever he had to say, into so small a compass that ... it might be rolled up in my mother's housewife. —Sterne, Tristram Shandy

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Thank you Stoney :) – coleopterist Jan 7 '13 at 17:27

It perhaps doesn’t take too much imagination to see that in the absence of their spouses men might give the name housewife to an object that performs at least one of the roles of their loved ones. The OED’s earliest citation for this use is dated 1735.

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For pronunciation, the OED has (in sense 4, the one in question here):

Brit. /ˈhʌzɪf/ , U.S. /ˈhəzəf/

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I don’t understand the notion of a stress schwa in English. I might buy /ˈhʌzəf/, but the other doesn’t make sense to me. – tchrist Dec 29 '12 at 10:28

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