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Typical wedding vows, per e.g. this website, often have phrasing like this (emphasis mine):

[Groom’s name], do you take [Bride’s name] to be your wedded wife, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?

The vows for the woman often likewise use the phrase "wedded husband". Per the Wikipedia article on marriage vows, this phrasing dates back at least as far as the 1500s.

This seems redundant and silly - surely any wife is necessarily a "wedded wife" by definition? Wouldn't it be cleaner to replace "wedded wife" with just "wife"?

What's the origin of this curious phrasing? Was it the case that at the time it was first used, the common definition of a "wife" didn't require that a wedding ceremony had taken place, and there was thus some meaningful distinction between a plain old wife and a "wedded wife"? Or is it perhaps the case that it's always been redundant, but that these redundancies were more common and seemed less silly to people at the time that the wording was first introduced?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jul 18 at 18:59
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As far as I can tell, it's one of two reasons:

  • According to the The History of the English Language, "wedded" in vows originally meant something more along the lines of "pledged". However, in Old English, wed had that meaning in addition to the meaning related to marriage.

  • Looking at Middle English (usually outside of vows), "wedded wife" (and also apparently bewedded wife) was used a lot more commonly than "wedded husband". Quotes such as Orm's "weddedd wĕre & weddedd wif" illustrate why this is. The word "wif[e]" here means "woman", contrasted with "were" which translates to "man" (see also the Ormulum's full modern translation). At this point in history, a "wif[e]" could be either a woman or a married woman so not all examples are clear cut on which meaning is the most correct. However, I can say that "wife" was still used to mean "woman" (MED lists examples as late as 1475) when the first vows with "wedded wife" and "wedded husband" were made (about 1400). "Wedded wife" therefore serves to disambiguate, and "wedded husband" is there to keep it symmetrical.

Here are some early examples of "wedded husband":

  • "For [ne] wille ich þe loue, ne non oþer, Bote mi wedde houssebonde." (Dame Sirith, a1300)
  • "Dowtyr…take me to þe as for þi weddyd husbond, as thy derworthy derlyng & as for thy swete sone." (The Book of Margery Kempe, Book 1, a1438)
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  • 13
    And the word "man" originally referred to any person, regardless of sex. Female people were wife-men. Wife-men -> wimmen -> women. Jul 19 at 3:32
  • 16
    ..."were" = "man"? Is that where "werewolf" comes from? i.e.: "man-wolf"? Jul 19 at 13:39
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    @DarrelHoffman Yes, that's exactly the etymology of werewolf.
    – Hearth
    Jul 19 at 14:28
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    @Hearth And it's just occurred to me by extension that all female werewolves should be properly referred to as "wifwolves", but I think it's a bit late for that... Jul 19 at 21:03
  • 3
    Excellent answer. A small additional point: It’s especially common in legal/ceremonial language to repeat well-established set phrases, and also to use redundancy when (as here) it adds extra emphasis on a relevant aspect. So even in vows written after wife had (largely) acquired its modern meaning and wedded was (somewhat) redundant, it’s not at all surprising that they stuck with the earlier-established wording.
    – PLL
    Jul 19 at 23:30
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Historically and etymologically, "wife" meant "woman" (and "husband" meant "householder"). The word was used for both "female spouse" and "adult female" up until at least Middle English (late 1400s), and the 1911 Century Dictionary still has this:

  1. A woman: now only in rural or provincial use, especially in Scotland, and usually with an adjective, or in composition with a noun… as, old wives’ tales; a fishwife.

So it seems very plausible (though not certain) that "your [lawfully] wedded wife/husband" was included in marriage vows because, otherwise, it might have implied a relationship that wasn't binding or wasn't Church-approved—as "your woman/man" might in modern English.

It's worth noting that it's still somewhat redundant, given that the rest of the vow spells out the details of the commitment (and, in older forms, the Church's approval). So the authors of wedding vows weren't aiming to be concise and avoid repetition. On the contrary, they probably wanted to state things several times in several ways, to ensure everyone grasped the seriousness of the event!

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  • That's the correct answer - the old Germanic word that evolved to "wife" meant "woman", not "spouse". Compare to German, where the cognate "Weib" still exists - today, it has a derogative meaning, but it didn't in former times, and you don't have to be married to be a "Weib". Jul 19 at 5:53
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    Note that this linguistic ambiguity still exists in German, where "Mann" can mean man or husband and "Frau" woman or wife. Similiarly to "wedded", the prefix "Ehe-" can be used to explicitly refer to the marital relation.
    – Ingix
    Jul 19 at 11:19
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  • 1
    @BrianDonovan: Mostly "unattractive in character". If I met a pop-culture "Karen", I'd say "So ein blödes Weib". Possibly, but not used as often, also "unattractive in appearance", "so ein häßliches Weib". This does not affect Faust, because "weiblich" as an adjective does not have the same connotation and is used like English "female". "Das ewig Weibliche", as a substantivation of this, also doesn't have the same connotation. (I'd translate this to something like "Eternal Femality"). Jul 19 at 13:04
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    There's an ancient belief that things repeated thrice have power. Repetition makes it more real. It means it isn't a mistake or a momentary thought; it's an oath. Jul 20 at 19:41
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First, it is important to state that The Common Law of England did not, and does not, recognise "common law" marriages.

The OED has another definition of Wife:

5. A woman who has a long-term sexual relationship with a man to whom she is not married; a mistress; a concubine.

1679 Domestick Intelligence 2 Dec. He hath lived with a wife or woman for some years, by whom he hath had two or three children.

Note the use of "a" wife" that indicates a random example of a cohabiting woman rather than any formal relationship with the man.

A cohabiting woman may be referred to as a "wife" but she is not a "wife" in the eyes of the law or the Church (The law and the Church were much the same thing.)

The OED continues:

In early use chiefly with reference to the concubines of priests. In early use, the marital status of these was still a matter of dispute;

As the clergy wrote the Book of Common Prayer, the Church wished to distinguish between (i) these "priest wives" and any similar women referred to as "wives" who had (arguably) not been through a recognised marriage ceremony and (ii) women who had been officially "wedded" to a man.

A "wedded" wife was thus a woman who had been through a recognised form of marriage (at the time there was only one form.)

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    But the Book of Common Prayer (originally published 1549) was not the first to use the wording "wedded wife" (or "wedded husband") in a marriage ceremony.
    – Laurel
    Jul 18 at 22:11
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    @Laurel why "but"? Your observation doesn't seem to be at odds with anything in Greybeard's answer.
    – Mark Amery
    Jul 18 at 22:17
  • @Laurel A "wedded" wife was thus a woman who had been through a recognised form of marriage.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 18 at 22:24
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There seem to be several variations on this formula, used in different countries and different church traditions:

  • to be my wife

  • to be my wedded wife

  • to be my lawfully wedded wife

To me, the third form makes more sense (in modern English) than the second: it's arguably redundant, depending on your definition of "wife", but it's emphasizing that the process by which the bride becomes "my wife" is a lawful process.

It would be interesting to trace the development of these three variations of the phrase.

Incidentally archaism and redundancy are abundant in this kind of ritual. We "plight our troth" - do you ever plight anything else, or do anything with your troth other than to plight it?

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  • Welcome and thank you for your answer, but yeah an ideal answer here would trace the development of those three variations on the phrase. That would give your answer some additional value to other readers, given that you missed the main point that the construction being discussed came out of older senses of the word wife. Similarly, your "point" about plighting troth should be removed. Both are perfectly good words that happened to ossify in that usage and your annoyance with it is just Seinfeld being unfunny.
    – lly
    Jul 19 at 20:12
  • That kind of duplication is also common in the law, e.g. "goods and chattels", where Anglo-Saxon and Norman have been combined - presumably drafters of laws were concerned there might be some slight difference and wanted to be inclusive. Jul 20 at 15:05
  • @Ily re plighting troth, I don't know how you concluded I found it annoying; I was just pointing out that there are other examples of archaism and redundancy in this domain which helps to provide context. I've no idea who Seinfeld is or how he or she is relevant to the question or the answer. Jul 20 at 21:28
  • There's a phrase "common-law wife" that is often used of a long-standing mistress. It basically means "not-lawfully-wedded wife". A woman treated or regarded as a wife by a partner, but absent any legal marriage.
    – nigel222
    Jul 21 at 10:51
  • @nigel222 A common-law marriage is actually a legally recognized marriage, not just a long-term relationship. In most cases it involves the couple declaring themselves to be married, living together, and being recognized by the community as married. Nowadays most US states no longer allow common-law marriage, so it's much rarer today than it was in the past.
    – barbecue
    Jul 21 at 22:34
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I only know the phrase used as "lawfully-wedded wife", which serves the purpose of emphasizing the legality of the wedding, not the basic fact that the wife is wedded. (e.g., official and not common-law, properly licensed, with all required age/parental consents in place, or even within historical restrictions of gender, etc.)

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