In the nursery rhyme "As I was Going to St Ives", the protagonist encounters a man and his "seven wives".

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives

Inspired by this answer on Literature:SE, is there any evidence to suggest that the typical use for the word "wife" (in the 1700s) would encompass those who weren't a person's actual spouse or partner?

  • 1
    You mean, aside from the OED entry and citations that were already provided at the original post?
    – lly
    Apr 9, 2017 at 14:25
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    It doesn't matter whether it's behind a paywall. It still exists, was the original sense of the word, and continues to be used in Scots. There's a cite from 2015 for sense 1. a. A woman. The context doesn't exclude the usage he mentioned at all; in fact, it seems more likely than that the rhyme involved bigamy or Muslim visitors to Cornwall.
    – lly
    Apr 9, 2017 at 14:28
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    .shrug. Well, you can continue to disbelieve in the OED's existence, along with its Old and Middle English equivalents, but it has it with a horde of citations back to Old English, throughout England. You're wrong about this and there's nothing more authoritative than the OED to cite for you regarding English usage. (If it helps at all, the OE cites include their Latin glosses, which are femina and not uxor.)
    – lly
    Apr 9, 2017 at 14:31
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    The original of the nursery rhyme, from 1730, seems to have been: "As I went to St. Ives, I met nine wives. And every Wife had nine Sacs, And every sac had nine Cats, And every cat had nine kittens. How many Wives, Sacs, Cats and Kittens Went to St. Ives?" So in the original, the word wife might easily have meant women. In Google books, I find variations of this version for over a century before we get a man with seven wives in the 1860s. Apr 9, 2017 at 14:40
  • 2
    wife (n.) Middle English wif, wyf, from Old English wif (neuter) "woman, female, lady," also, but not especially, "wife," ... ... Apparently felt as inadequate in its basic sense, leading to the more distinctive formation wifman (source of woman). etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=wife Usage may evolve over time. Where's the problem?
    – Kris
    Apr 9, 2017 at 14:51

1 Answer 1


Here is what some eighteenth-century dictionaries have to say about wife. From John Kersey & Edward Phillips, The New World of Words: or, Universal English Dictionary, sixth edition (1706):

Wife, a married Woman, whose Will, in the judgment of the Law, is subject to that of her Husband; so that 'tis commonly said She has no Will, but fulget radiis Mariti, i. e. Shines with her Husband's Lustre.

The same definition of A WIFE (but with an etymological derivation from the Saxon Wiff) appears in various editions of Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1724 and later).

From John Kersey, Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum: or, a General English Dictionary (1708):

Wife, a married Woman.

From Thomas Dyche & William Pardon, A New General English Dictionary, first (?) edition (1735):

WIFE (S.) A woman that is married.

From Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1756):

WIFE. s. plural wives. ... 1. A woman that has a husband. [Quotations from Shakespeare, Genesis, Milton, Dryden, and Pope omitted]. 2. It is used for a woman of low employment. [Quotation from Bacon involving the deceptive vending practices of "strawberry wives" omitted].

As Johnson's entry indicates, there was a strand of usage in England, at least from the time of Francis Bacon (who died in 1626), of using the term wife to refer to a woman of mean occupation. It is certainly possible that native English speakers of the eighteenth century might on occasion refer to a fishwife, who might or might not be married—and who certainly wasn't married to a fish—as simply a wife. (An alewife, on the other hand is a fish.) Nevertheless, to judge from the dictionary entries above, the word wife was generally understood in the 1700s to refer to a married woman.

On the other hand, nothing in any of the cited definitions suggests that the man in the nursery rhyme who was "with seven wives" had to have been married to them himself in order for them to qualify as wives he was with.

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