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?


6 Answers 6


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". "In one" or "as one" would be a closer translation, and more poetic in allusion, but strange with the rest of the sentence in Modern English.

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.

  • 1
    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. Apr 29, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 at 9:57
  • I don't know if this is relevant; but in India all marriages happen by the couple tying a chain around each others necks... Aug 11, 2017 at 15:26
  • @AravindSuresh one example of what I was thinking of when I said "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." It's very common in modern Western paganism (where such marriage are indeed often called "handfasting"), some Christian denominations wrap (but don't actually tie) the couples hands together, and there are other examples
    – Jon Hanna
    Aug 11, 2017 at 17:32

To tie the knot is a remnant of the ancient church's tradition to take the couple's hands and tie them with a piece of fabric during the wedding in the Church. In the West, this tradition has fallen in disuse, but in an unchanged form, this is how it is still done in the Orthodox Church.

  • Did it originate as a church tradition? I thought it was pre-Christian. Apr 9, 2015 at 0:27

The artwork Aztec Marriage Couple, from the Codex Mendoza (1434) depicts a man and a woman seated on a mat; the bride was powdered with yellow earth and adorned in red feathers. The formal vows took place in the groom's home, the marriage performed by tying together their wedding garments—tying the knot.

[Source: Margaret Lazzari & Dona Schlesier, Exploring Art: A Global and Thematic Approach (2011).]


In ancient Aztec marriages, after the ceremony the new couples clothing was literally tied together into a knot

See the image of a marriage ceremony in The Codex Mendoza (Berdan and Anawalt 1992:vol. 4 folio 61r)


In Celtic tradition, they often would take "ribbons" of each family tartan and tie them around the wrists and then together in a knot symbolizing the joining of the two clans and thus "tying the knot", yet another example of how this phrase may have come to be.

  • Hi @Gwenn, welcome to EL&U, here we expect the people to cite the references to back up their claims. Could you include any support/evidence with your answer? Oct 26, 2015 at 13:41

The uncontrollable nature of the sea has given way to many a nautical lore. It has Long been said amongst sailors that when the yearning for home and the woman you love takes over your soul, you must send her a length of rope from your vessel. If she returns that rope tied in a knot than she is you one true love who agrees to your [betrothal] and promises to spend the rest of her life with you upon your return.

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    References? Sounds very doubtful.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 1, 2016 at 3:25
  • Was there a helicopter or speed boat to deliver the length of rope from your vessel to her?
    – user140086
    Mar 1, 2016 at 3:34
  • Hot air balloon, duh!
    – Craig
    Mar 1, 2016 at 4:16
  • I've only come across 'lore' in this sense being licensed (eg Macmillan) for non-count usage. But the lack of references is the more serious problem. Mar 4, 2016 at 11:21

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