52

henpecked [hen-pekt]
adjective
1. browbeaten, bullied, or intimidated by one's wife, girlfriend, etc.:
a henpecked husband who never dared to contradict his wife.

What is the wife of a henpecked husband called? (word or phrase) (in regards to her browbeating/bullying, her husband)

It might not be henpecker since henpecked seems to have the etymology of "pecked by the hen".

Sample sentence:

That woman is a henpecker.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

closed as primarily opinion-based by MetaEd Mar 6 at 16:59

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 6
    Is a single word necessary? 'henpecked husband' has two after all. – Mitch Feb 25 at 17:17
  • 7
    I removed the pejorative-language tag. This question is not asking for single words that are pejorative. Even though some of the answers might be considered to be words that are pejorative, the question itself is perfectly neutral. – Jason Bassford Feb 26 at 16:23
  • 3
    @hazoriz... or "a henpecking wife". Adjective phrase. More common than noun phrase. I suggest you drop the requirement for a noun phrase, because all you'll get is a dictionaryful of archaic words that noone uses. Or the catchall word 'b***h'. – smci Feb 27 at 0:32
  • 3
    This belongs on ESL, so we can teach you how to swear correctly. Removing the 'pejorative-language' tag was uncalled for. – Mazura Feb 27 at 1:10
  • 3
    @hazoriz: But you tagged this question single-word-request, then didn't untag it; which clearly reduced the accuracy and relevance of the answers you're getting. (It was later also tagged phrase-requests by someone else for you.) I just edited the body to explicitly say (word or phrase). When you still said 'single word "not necessary"' that could be interpreted as "single word preferred but not essential". Just trying to help the question be clear; it's a good question. – smci Mar 2 at 3:16

20 Answers 20

121

You might go with a word that was well-understood in the Shakespearean era:

shrew
2: an ill-tempered scolding woman
definition from m-w.com

Thus the henpecked husband could say "I didn't realize it at the time but I soon discovered that I'd married a real shrew."

103

You can have your pick, I like harridan. But look at the synonym list, it's hysterical.

har·ri·dan
[ˈherəd(ə)n]
NOUN
a strict, bossy, or belligerent old woman.
"a bullying old harridan"

synonyms: shrew · virago · harpy · termagant · vixen · nag · hag · crone · dragon · ogress · fishwife · hellcat · she-devil · fury · gorgon · martinet · tartar · spitfire · old bag · old bat

— Oxford Dictionaries (Definition and synonyms) via Bing.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Mar 2 at 2:12
65

The verb henpeck means:

[Merriam-Webster]

: to subject (one's spouse or partner) to persistent nagging and domination

Using the common noun counterpart, you would simply say, "That woman is a nag":

[Merriam-Webster]

noun
: one who nags habitually

  • 2
    If you are unsure what the asker is looking for, first ask for clarification in the comment box on the question. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:01
  • "Woe baby you're a nag (Nag nag naggity nag) ... Run down to the butcher shop and buy me a roast." – RonJohn Mar 5 at 2:12
25

An unambiguous colloquial phrase for this is She Who Must Be Obeyed. It even has a Wikipedia page.

The meaning of the phrase is pretty clear just from the literal words put together, but here's a source:

informal, depreciative

A strong-willed or domineering woman, especially a wife or female partner.

-- Oxford Dictionaries

It may also be shortened to simply SWMBO.

The origin of this phrase is H. Rider Haggard's novel She, but there the character called "She Who Must Be Obeyed" is a fearsome and immortal queen-goddess. Its usage in popular culture to mean a henpecking wife may stem from the British TV series Rumpole of the Bailey, and may be mostly a Brisith English phenomenon. (Citation needed for both those last speculations, though.)

  • 6
    British readers will be familiar with the popular UK tv series Rumpole of the Bailey, a legal drama (with humourous overtones) written by former Barrister John Mortimer for ITV in the 1980s, starring Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole. This phrase, she who must be obeyed, was Rumpole's humorous nickname for his wife (and in origin is derived from H Rider Haggard's 1887 novel She). – Ed999 Feb 26 at 20:14
  • 18
    @MetaEd That appears to be a stock comment, since I already have most of the rep-based privileges. Could you explain what you feel this answer is lacking? I've explained that (in contrast to most of the other answers here) this phrase is unambiguous and its meaning clear just from the simple words themselves. – Rand al'Thor Feb 27 at 20:52
  • 1
    I've never heard this phrase that I'm aware of, and certainly wouldn't have pegged it as synonymous with "henpecker" without specific context (I would have pegged it as describing a tyrannical queen in a fantasy story, similar to That Which Must Not Be Named or He Who Walks Behind The Rows). Is this possibly a British thing? – MichaelS Mar 4 at 4:41
  • @MichaelS Possibly. I've edited. – Rand al'Thor Mar 4 at 9:02
  • 1
    @MetaEd Do you see the words "unambiguous" or "clear" in any of the other answers? Once again, Stack Exchange is not intended to accept "one single correct answer" with all other answers being wrong - the feature of being able to post multiple answers to the same question is very much by design. I've upvoted some of the other answers, and I don't think they're all wrong, but in my opinion this answer is the most appropriate match for what the OP was looking for. That's why I posted it. – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 at 17:03
22

Lots of good answers, but I'm surprised I do not see fishwife:

noun

A person, traditionally a woman, who persistently nags or criticizes:

The Free Dictionary

  • Thank you for your effort. Stack Exchange answers are “right” answers, not ideas, suggestions, or opinions. To show that yours is the right answer, please edit to include explanation, context, and supporting facts. If you are unsure what the asker is looking for, first ask for clarification in the comment box on the question. To comment on existing questions you can easily earn the privilege. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:03
  • 1
    @MetaEd Oh please. StackExchange isn't designed to filter answers so only one 'right' answer remains. In most cases, such as this one, several words, phrases, or expressions will fit the asker's criterion/a. You have repeatedly commented on people who have cited sources. As long as the answer makes sense, is backed up by definition and cited sources, the answer is fine. There is even a Meta post regarding your actions. I do understand that in that case , the OP was wrong, but this has to stop. – Lordology Mar 10 at 9:55
22

Yes, henpecker is a word, feel free to use it.

There's no board of people who decide what is and isn't a word, so adding -er to an -ed word is fine, as seen in standard words like clean-ed, clean-er, so it makes perfect sense that henpeck-ed has the form henpeck-er.

One who henpecks or nags.

From Wiktionary.

And from Definition Of,

A nagging wife

Recognised word from Glosbe and WordHippo.

Google Books results - 'Mrs Henpecker' or 'HENPECKER' appears to be a prominent comical character in various pantomimes and plays.

Example from Understanding the Male Temperament by Tim LaHaye:

I have never met a happy henpecked husband--nor, for that matter, have I met a happy henpecker. You can count on this: In his frustration, a henpecked man will dedicate himself to making his henpecker miserable.

The Henpecker is the title of a chapter from the book A Bird's Eye View of American Women, offering a somewhat humorous outlook on the matter.

Then Google Ngrams. There appears to be a spike in the '70s, FWIW.

Not forgetting Hen Pecker by The Surfdusters

See this Yahoo Answers thread for further research (I know it says "hen picker", but I believe this is a mistake, as corrected by the answers.)

enter image description here

  • Do they use "henpecker" in Great Britain? I understand the meaning, but have never heard it used here in the U.S. We do use a similar word, "nitpicker", which may be applied to either gender. – Scot Parker Feb 28 at 3:14
  • 2
    I've never heard it being used, but if you did, no-one would bat an eye. We use nitpicker too, FWIW – Lordology Feb 28 at 7:13
  • 12
    @MetaEd As Rand al'Thor has mentioned, this appears to be a stock comment, I am well above your stated privilege, I have plenty of cited sources; this answer speaks for itself. – Lordology Feb 28 at 7:19
  • 5
    @MetaEd As a moderator, you should be aware that Stack Exchange is designed not to allow a single "right" answer, but to have many different answers with the best one appearing first (where "best" may be subjective). On a healthy site, questions receive multiple answers and the best answer is voted to the top. – Rand al'Thor Mar 3 at 9:01
  • 1
    @MetaEd If you feel the question is more of a poll, that would be a problem with the question, maybe reason to close it, but surely not to harass all the people who attempted to answer it. – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 at 17:19
19

A "nag", which literally means an old mare.

Ya, different animal than a chicken. "shrew" is seldom used in the U.S., but "nag" definitely is. Many suggestions here may be correct, but are not in common usage, so would sound weird (at least in the U.S.)

  • 1
    I think the worst thing you can call a woman in the English language is hackney, which is an old broken down horse, but it also means to become common, dirty and used up through over use. – K Dog Feb 26 at 18:21
  • 2
    Nag is used in the US but not to mean a shrew. Anyone can be a nag. Shrew only sounds weird in unschooled circles (sorry, I refuse to be PC). – Lambie Feb 26 at 20:04
  • 6
    @Lambie I wouldn't say it only sounds weird in unschooled circles. It sounds very weird to me, and I have a PhD. – Matt Samuel Feb 27 at 0:54
  • 2
    @MattSamuel Come on, now. It's the kind of term one might use. And I fail to see how a Phd is at all relevant to this. I use "fancy" words all the time, as long as I am assured that my interlocutor(s) will understand me. I wouldn't say shrew at the convenience store down the street but I might use if at a dinner party or other gathering of my peers... – Lambie Feb 27 at 0:57
  • 1
    Thank you for your effort. Stack Exchange answers are “right” answers, not ideas, suggestions, or opinions. To show that yours is the right answer, please edit to include explanation, context, and supporting facts. If you are unsure what the asker is looking for, first ask for clarification in the comment box on the question. To comment on existing questions you can easily earn the privilege. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:03
16

The word often used in drama, though not so widely used today is

a scold

Oxford Dictionaries says

NOUN US archaic A person, in particular a woman, who nags or grumbles constantly.

‘his mother was the village scold’ ‘the fiscal scolds insist that reform will make everything even worse’

As you see, it is marked as archaic.

  • Thank you for your effort. Stack Exchange answers are “right” answers, not ideas, suggestions, or opinions. To show that yours is the right answer, please edit to include explanation, context, and supporting facts. If you are unsure what the asker is looking for, first ask for clarification in the comment box on the question. To comment on existing questions you can easily earn the privilege. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:03
  • 9
    @MetaEd Thank you for this. Like many, I sometimes give opinions, although I believe that ‘experience’ is allowed to be drawn on as well as research. It is hard to prove that there is no word that fits the OP’s question, but this is as near, I think as you can get. What exactly are you looking by way of explanation, please? – Tuffy Feb 28 at 0:26
  • How is this answer right and the others wrong? – MetaEd Mar 6 at 16:49
12

Grey mare is an older phrase used to refer to a woman who has the final say in a marriage. Here's an excerpt from the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) explaining the term:

The Grey Mare is the better horse. The woman is paramount. It is said that a man wished to buy a horse, but his wife took a fancy to a grey mare, and so pertinaciously insisted that the grey mare was the better horse, that the man was obliged to yield the point.

The phrase sometimes appears outside of the saying, as in this translation of Martial's epigram 560 (book X, epigram LXIX), which describes a wife with excessive control over her husband as a grey mare:

You have the husband's latch-key, he has none;

You are the grey mare, Polla, when all's done.

This passage in Latin literally describes putting a husband in the place of a wife (translation in italics):

Custodes das, Polla, viro, non accipis ipsa. Polla, you give your husband guards that you don't receive yourself

Hoc est uxorem ducere, Polla, virum. This is making your husband into a wife, Polla.

That said, you may notice something about all of these excerpts. They come from sources that date to the start of the 20th century. Grey mare, rather like henpecked husband, is old-fashioned because of its many pejorative associations. These terms come from a sexist topos that women exerting power in a marriage is contrary to an established order, and a man who allows his partner to make decisions is diminished.

  • 5
    Just to be clear, I don't approve of the history of sexism behind this term or related ones, but it does provide some interesting linguistic history. – TaliesinMerlin Feb 25 at 18:04
  • Thank you for your effort. Stack Exchange answers are “right” answers, not ideas, suggestions, or opinions. To show that yours is the right answer, please edit to include explanation, context, and supporting facts. If you are unsure what the asker is looking for, first ask for clarification in the comment box on the question. To comment on existing questions you can easily earn the privilege. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:03
  • 13
    I have included explanation, context, and supporting facts. I suggest that your issue is with the question as it is phrased, and specifically its ability to lead to multiple valid answers. – TaliesinMerlin Feb 27 at 20:50
  • Yes. Which is why I said you should first ask for clarification before answering such a question. If a question looks more like a poll or request for ideas or suggestions, please don't just post a suggestion. Help the asker to transform the question (if possible) into a question that is not a poll. – MetaEd Mar 6 at 16:51
10

Per my comments, contemporary answers are unlikely to be single words (e.g. 'shrew' is archaic/literary), and verb-phrases/adjective-phrases are more common for this than noun phrases:

  • she is a henpecking wife
  • she henpecks her husband
  • she is a henpecker
  • she is a nag
  • nags her husband

Here is data from Google Ngrams (from literature, not spoken) corroborating that; "nags her husband" seems to be the most common:

enter image description here

  • 1
    Great actual data, thanks. I bet "real henpecker" sees some usage. – Fattie Feb 27 at 19:28
  • 8
    This is not an "effort", this is the "right" answer: that verb/adjective-phrases like *"She is a henpecking wife/ henpecks her husband" are more correct than noun-phrases**. It does not need any editing whatsoever. I was sure what OP was looking for (unlike other respondents) because I already did ask them multiple clarifications in comments on the question. "Supporting facts" are the statistics I showed that "nags her husband" or "henpecking wife" are far more commonly used than noun-phrases like "henpecker", throughout 1861-2019. – smci Feb 27 at 22:28
10

A Kvetch, from Yiddish, has several meanings, including:

1 : a habitual complainer

I’ve heard Jews of an older generation use ballbuster to mean a henpecking wife specifically, I think as a pun on balabusta, Yiddish for a good homemaker. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

a person who is relentlessly aggressive, intimidating, or domineering

In practice, I’ve always heard it used to refer to women.

  • 6
    @MetaEd Could you please clarify why you think either of the answers I gave, with citations, were insufficient? What additional information would you ask me to give, beyond the dictionary definition? – Davislor Feb 27 at 20:34
  • 10
    @MetaEd I honestly don’t see how my answer is any less correct than any other that lists some, but not all, synonyms. I do not understand your objection. – Davislor Feb 27 at 20:46
  • 9
    @Davislor - It looks to me like Ed got up on the wrong side of the biddy this morning. – Hot Licks Feb 27 at 22:55
  • 9
    @MattE.Эллен Then no single-word request can ever be suitable for EL&U, because English has synonyms and dialects. For example, a particular word might be used mainly by Ashkenazi Jews in New York. Certainly no request for a short phrase. – Davislor Feb 28 at 11:48
  • 1
    The answer in its edited (expanded) form looks good to me. // I disagree with the last sentence. In my experience men are just as good and criticizing, complaining, moaning and groaning as women. Perhaps you have had more opportunity to listen to men's candid descriptions of women than of women's candid descriptions of men? – aparente001 Mar 3 at 7:23
8

A somewhat more serious variant of "hen" is biddy:

  1. a chicken or chick; esp., a hen

  2. Informal a woman; esp., an elderly woman (usually old biddy) regarded contemptuously as annoying, gossipy, etc.

— Collins Dictionary

I've generally taken the word, when used to refer to a fowl (not foul) female, to mean the one who "rules the roost".

This seems to be a fairly good complement of "henpecked", in both the literal and figurative senses.

  • 1
    Interesting. "Old biddy" was fairly common when I was growing up in northern England, but I never knew it was related to hens. – Echelon Feb 27 at 16:49
  • 3
    @MetaEd - I am unsure what your comment is supposed to mean. – Hot Licks Feb 27 at 20:22
  • This answer post gives "an" answer (biddy) but does not show that it's the "right" answer. Consequently the post is more of an idea or suggestion than a definitive answer. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:32
  • 10
    @MetaEd - As is the case for most single word requests, there is no single "right" answer to the question. Rather, it's normal for the OP to be given a range of suggestions to choose from. Every now and then a given suggestion is "dead on", but that's more the exception than the rule. – Hot Licks Feb 27 at 22:54
  • @HotLicks Exactly. And when a question comes up that is basically a request for ideas or suggestions, the right response is not to post a suggestion. It's to help the asker clarify the post to the point that it's narrow and clear enough that it has a "right" answer. – MetaEd Mar 6 at 16:56
6

Shrew is probably the best-known of many synonyms and near-synonyms, because of the Shakespeare play. An entry I have not seen in the other answers is Xanthippe, the name of the wife of Socrates’, alleged to have been such a woman.

  • Thank you for your effort. Stack Exchange answers are “right” answers, not ideas, suggestions, or opinions. To show that yours is the right answer, please edit to include explanation, context, and supporting facts. If you are unsure what the asker is looking for, first ask for clarification in the comment box on the question. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:06
6

Contrary to all the pejorative answers here, while a henpecked husband might be considered unusual in those cultures that share the concept, that doesn't necessarily (or even usually) imply his wife must be abnormally strong or aggressive. Rather it'd be a case where, for whatever reasons, maybe the husband is too delicate, or too exhausted by the world, or too needy, so that their respective strengths don't balance harmoniously.

In which case the more or less normal wife would be called "Dear", or "The Mrs.", or "The Boss", etc.

Some pop culture examples. Caspar Milquetoast:

Pollster asks Milquetoast "Are you the head of the family?"

Harold Bissonette (W.C. Fields) from It's a Gift.

There's probably no point in their respective stories where either character ever much resents his own wife, or considers them a dragon. However passive they seem married, they'd be no less passive single, like Mike Judge's Milton.

  • 2
    This answer makes the important point that the key element is, the husband has been "put under", his conventional leading, rooster-like role has been usurped. This is why for me shrew and even harridan are not really correct. – Fattie Feb 27 at 12:40
  • Thank you for your effort. Stack Exchange answers are “right” answers, not ideas, suggestions, or opinions. To show that yours is the right answer, please edit to include explanation, context, and supporting facts. If you are unsure what the asker is looking for, first ask for clarification in the comment box on the question. – MetaEd Feb 27 at 20:07
  • 5
    @MetaEd, The payload of this answer is that not all such terms need be particularly sexist or spiteful. But some questions are like the Blind Men and the Elephant, and this answer, like several of the answers here, is but one facet of a right answer. If another picture of Milquetoast calling his wife "dear", or other usage cites would help, that might be done. – agc Feb 28 at 4:45
  • In that case the problem is with the question, and the right response is not to follow the question down the garden path. The right response is to post helpful comments that lead the asker to clarify the question. – MetaEd Mar 6 at 16:57
6

The best answer for you depends upon which qualities of the wife you want to emphasize. If, for example, you want to keep your hole card face down, 'virago', with its superior range of senses, might be most suitable:

virago, n.
....
2.
a. A man-like, vigorous, and heroic woman; a female warrior; an amazon. Now rare.

3. A bold, impudent (†or wicked) woman; a termagant, a scold.

OED (paywalled).

Although sense 2a is "[n]ow rare", that accident of usage frequency need not keep the sense from being what you intend, if pressed on the point.

The prefix 'arch-' might also be handy for your purpose:

arch-, prefix
...one who occupies a position or rank above those who bear the simple title [of 'wife' in this case]

OED (paywalled).

As the OED mentions, "...[s]ince the 16th cent., arch- has been freely prefixed to names of agents and appellatives...". So, even though 'archwife' in the sense of a

'...wife of a superior order' (Tyrwhitt); a strong or masterful wife, a virago...

op. cit.

is obsolete, the use of the prefix 'arch-', as well as its meaning, remains contemporary, and will be readily understood.

5

The closest actual synonym is perhaps

ball-breaker

(or ball-buster).

What is the sense of a henpecker?

It's a relationship where the woman "tells the man what to do" - she usurps the (supposed) dominating, leading role of the male by constantly telling the male what to do, by "getting the upper hand", by commanding situations.

A harridan is "any" "bossy old woman". If you were using this archaic word, you could use it to describe any (say) bossy female politician, bossy old widow, etc.

In contrast, a henpecker (or "ball-buster") is specifically a wife who eliminates the masculinity, authority of the husband, through constant nattering.

And a shrew, if you were to use that archaic word - for me a shrew is a mean / bad-tempered / etc "independent woman" who doesn't even want to get married or have anything to do with men.

Regarding words like "nag" or "cow" ...

A vulgar synonym of "henpecked" is "pussy-whipped"; the point is the male's (supposed, whatever) usual place of authority, of decision over day to day elements in the household, has been usurped by the female. So, while a henpecker wife may indeed be a nag, or a cow, she may indeed just be "loud" ... but then, conversely, she may be the "silent staring" type of henpecker! If you're really trying to describe the notion that she has "got it over" the husband - the husband is henpecked or "pussy-whipped" - about the only real synonym of "henpecker" I can think of is "ball-buster".

Or indeed perhaps simply "dominating wife" as a phrase.

  • It should be noted that "ball buster" is sometimes used simply to mean "odious task", and occasionally is used to refer to an unfair (and unpleasant) kick in martial arts. – Hot Licks Feb 27 at 23:24
  • It's a good point. I'm not sure if "ball-breaker" or "ball-buster" is the usual term for "a wife who dominates the husband"; I've become confused thinking about it. And I don't use such language myself, so, I don't know. – Fattie Feb 27 at 23:42
4

You could say she "wears the trousers" ("wears the pants" in the US).

  • (especially of a woman) to be the person in a relationship who is in control and who makes decisions for both people

  • the dominant person in a relationship

  • it implies the man is emasculated by metaphorically wearing a dress

John likes to pretend he's in charge but it's Judy who really wears the trousers in that relationship.

4

Here goes nothing... I would say, depending on how flexible living arrangements are and whose name is on the lease and whether or not joint property laws apply...

Bitch--that's what she's really called.

Reference: Well known by roughly 99.9% of adult people somewhere nearby probably (search for The Bitch in the House, not the book, for more on that).

Her bitch--that's what he's called, BTW, stress on her.

(That may not be as well known; scratch that aside.)

Is bitch more derogatory than any type of...hen, nag, carp, etc.?

Potayto, potahto, approximately six to one, half a dozen...same difference. Or YES! Or no?

But it's been owned (e.g., WYA, my bitches!).

  • 1
    The woman may in fact be a bitch, and bitchiness can be a successful manner in causing a husband to be henpecked, but is the wife of a henpecked husband logically necessarily a bitch? And also (maybe more importantly) is the counterpart to a henpecked husband necessarily called a bitch. These are all questions in the interest of the science of hens and peckings. Konichiwa – Mitch Mar 4 at 16:47
  • @Mitch, yeah, it's complicated...when you put it like that, and more importantly, who's this Konichiwa person? Oh, Kon-ichi-wa Bs...never mind. – KannE Mar 4 at 19:19
2

Termagant, shrew..I don't know if the former is still in use.

2

A word that sprung to mind is:

a battle-axe

From Collin's dictionary

  1. countable noun

If you call a middle-aged or older woman a battle-axe, you mean she is very difficult and unpleasant because of her fierce and determined attitude.

[informal, disapproval] Synonyms: harridan, witch, fury, nag

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.