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I know that in Old English "wer" mean "man" (male), "man" was more like "person", and "wif" meant "woman."

This has lead me to wonder about the phrase "I now pronounce you man and wife." In Modern English it feels unbalanced. When did that phrase originate, and what were the predominant usages of "man" and "wif" at that time?

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    You can find the history of "wife" in the Oxford English Dictionary in any good library. It was outdated as woman (except in Scotland) by the time of the English Reformation. "Wifman"/"Woman" goes back to Old English and probably reflects a deficiency or ambiguity with "wif". It's certainly true that in "man and wife" in the Book of Common Prayer, as today, there is imbalance between "man" (contrasts with "woman") and "wife" (contrasts with "husband"). But that's another question.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 10 at 13:09
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    If you want to research the marriage liturgy in England from time immemorial, you're welcome to do that; as far as I understand, Latin wedding liturgy would have been used until the English Reformation, but I can't find the precise Latin words used in a typical 15th century English wedding ceremony. But this is off-topic here (try History SE).
    – Stuart F
    Nov 10 at 13:12
  • @StuartF I tried to find the precise Latin words used in 15th-16th century English wedding ceremony. Apparently, once C of E, English was used, although I could only find the vows in Early Modern English, not what the celebrant says. Roman Catholic marriage ceremonies do not use "man and wife". Here's another related entry to the good one you shared already, about the etymology of woman and wife, stating that is exclusively an English and Dutch language ambiguity. Nov 10 at 13:17

1 Answer 1

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The marriage service in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer contains the statement "I pronounce that they bee man and wyfe together." This is 'Early Modern English', not 'Old English'. Wife may still have meant woman in some contexts, but its primary meaning by this time was female spouse.

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    Additionally, "together" is an important modifier -- what they're pronouncing is that the joining has become official.
    – Barmar
    Nov 10 at 15:53
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    It was probably a translation of some local Latin usage, perhaps originally something like vir et uxor (also a legal set phrase and close to Genesis 2:25 in some translations) where vir is usually translated "man" even though it could also mean "husband".
    – Henry
    Nov 10 at 17:56
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    This pronouncement does not seem to be in the nuptial mass of the Sarum usage though that does have "wyfe" and "husbonde" in the vows and elsewhere sponsus et sponsa ("groom and bride") as well as starting with ... ad conjungendum duo corpora scilicet hujus viri et hujus mulieris ("to joining together the two bodies of this man and this woman") where mulier had the same woman/wife ambiguity that its Spanish cognate mujer still does
    – Henry
    Nov 10 at 18:03

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