Husband

It depends. Do your dewlaps lap?

Dear Word Detective: I am curious about “husband” as applied to a male spouse, versus “to husband” meaning “to conserve or ration” something, and, of course, “husbandry” as it applies to animals. My wife often draws parallels between myself and various kinds of livestock (and not in a good way, I hasten to add). So, I’m wondering if that makes her responsible for the husbandry of her husband. — Chris.

Probably, though legally she may only have to make sure you have enough oats and to take you to a vet if your pasterns become fetlocked, your withers wither, or whatever. Our local vet clinic deals mostly with farm animals, and some of the diseases they get (judging by the labels on the big bottles on the shelves at said clinic) are truly gross. Let’s just say that any desire I ever had to own a horse, cow or sheep has evaporated.

This probably isn’t the best time to bring this up, but the first thing that popped into my mind on reading your mention of animal husbandry is the old Tom Lehrer line about a friend of his who majored in animal husbandry at college “until they caught him at it one day.” (If you’re not familiar with Mr. Lehrer’s work, which is truly brilliant, you can find clips on YouTube.)

Jokes aside, there is a perfectly proper and legal connection between “husband” in the “guy on the couch” sense and “animal husbandry” as well as to “husband” as a verb meaning “don’t fritter away.”

In the beginning there was the Old English word “husbonda,” meaning “master of the house,” which was derived from the Old Norse word “husbondi,” made up of “hus” (house) plus “bondi,” meaning a peasant who owned his own house and land. Interestingly, the original English word for “male of a married couple” was not “husband,” but “wer” (man), which went nicely with the Old English “wif,” the root of today’s “wife.” “Husband” took over from “wer” in the late 13th century, however, and “wer” is found today only in “werewolf” (literally “man-wolf”). That Old Norse “hus,” incidentally, also ended up wedded to the Old English “wif” (wife), giving us the Middle English “husewif,” which became “housewife.” In one of history’s weirder diversions, the perfectly respectable “housewife” later went on to mutate into “hussy,” an epithet still flung at women adjudged to be of low moral standing.

Meanwhile, the fact that “husband” had originally meant a man who owned and managed a farm led to the development of “husbandry” (as well as the now-obsolete “husbandman” meaning “farmer”). “Husbandry” meant the management of a household as well as land and animals, although the term is now used almost exclusively in reference to managing livestock. Since a successful farmer is a careful and thrifty farmer, “husbandry” took on a broader meaning of “careful and responsible management,” which gave us “husband” as a verb meaning “to manage with thrift and prudence” (“Husbanding my monthly allowance,” Charlotte Bronte, 1857).

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