May 29, 2012
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While husband now simply means the male partner in a marriage, its original meaning is somewhat more complex. The word is borrowed, with only a slight transformation, from Old Norse and consists of two parts. The first is hus, which is the Norse word for ‘house’. The second is band, derived from the Norse word bóndi, which means a freeholding owner of property and goods. Taken together then, a husband in the original sense is master of a household and owner of the property, goods of which it was comprised.
In the social context of the agricultural and still semi-tribal lands of Scandinavia and England during the heyday of Old West Norse (the variety spoken in Norway, Iceland and Norwegian colonies in the British Isles), a bóndi essentially meant a farmer. The root of the word is bú, which means ‘dwelling’ and is cognate with other Germanic words for farmer, such as the modern German bauer, Dutch boer, and the Old English word gebur.
In a frontier-like society lacking strong central authority (obviously more true of Iceland during this period than of Norway or England, but not totally untrue of the latter countries), a husband is therefore a duty-bound master and protector of the household against predatory outside forces which may be neighbors or other locals looking to settle scores, raiders from other lands or even the king and nascent state forces. This is a relatively dramatic view of the role of the husband which has mostly been lost due to our modern accommodation to the comforts of a protective state apparatus that enforces the rule of law.
However the preservation of the element ‘band’ within the word, which implies both encirclement and restriction, as well as togetherness and obligation, still provides a hint of the original meaning. This hint of the archaic lends the word a relatively accurate and traditional view of what a husband is for those who are able to pick up on it.