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Friday, 28 October 2016

About bridegrooms

A word like this is subject to a lot of folk etymology, particularly at weddings, where drunken uncles deliver slightly tearful speeches of great passion in which they derive 'bride' from 'breeding'. At this point the rest of the family shuffle slightly, being less drunk than the uncle, and wondering where he will stray, but then the drunken uncle steers away from such difficulties, and explains that a groom is a servant to devoted to the service of the bride. The shuffling starts again as the more alert members of the family hope he will not allude to the veterinary sense of servicing, but his tongue is now unable to get around 'veterinary' and he moves on to the next item.

As so often happens with drunken uncles, this hypothetical but regrettably omnipresent uncle is dead wrong, right down the line. In Old English, brýd meant "one owned or purchased", but the word itself seems to come from an Old Teutonic root meaning 'to cook', and which we preserve today in words like 'brew', whether it is a witch's brew or a brew of tea or ale, and also in words like 'broth', which is sometimes rendered in Scots ballads as 'broo' or 'bree'. It may even be the origin of 'broil', which came into Middle English from the French brouiller.

So the drunken uncle is wrong, because we derive 'breed' from the Old English brédan, which has also given us 'brood', 'bred' and 'breedling', a person born and bred in a place, but not 'bride'. The bride likewise has nothing to do with 'bread', which derives from the Old English bréad, meaning 'piece', a word which replaced hláf, the Old English form of 'loaf', some time before 1200. (The expression 'a piece' possibly lives on in Glaswegian English, where it is a slice of bread.)

The new bride might bake the bread (though a wife is 'she who weaves'), but it was the act of cooking, not the product which gave her that name. Still, if the drunken uncle was astray in the bride department, he was completely lost when it came to the groom. The bridegroom was known in Old English as the brýd-guma or the brýdi-guma, literally a bride-man. It was only about the 16th century that the drunken uncles got their way, and the 'gome' of Middle English became a 'groom'.

To follow a side path for a moment, the word 'groom' is of uncertain origin, but it seems to have meant a boy servant originally, but it came to be the name given to certain functionaries in the English royal household, and does so to this day, though one fascinating post, the Groom-porter, first recorded in 1502, and abolished in the time of King George III, was responsible for regulating gaming at court, resolving disputes about gaming and providing cards and dice.

In Shakespeare's time, a groom was generally a lowly person, except in the form 'bridegroom'. King Lear calls Oswald "this detested groom", and at other times, we encounter terms such as "dunghill groom", "meanest groom" or "jaded groom". Shakespeare was well aware of the distinction, for in The Taming of the Shrew, we find Gremio saying of Petruchio:
A bridegroom, say you? 'Tis a groom indeed,
A grumbling groom, and that the girl shall find.
Back now to the path that gave us the original term. The gýma comes from an Old Teutonic root, gumon, meaning 'man', and it is not too hard to see how that root has delivered us 'human', leading along one line of mutation to the French homme and the Latin homo, and even the Spanish hombre and the Italian uomo, while another line gives us 'man', and also the German mann. So literally, a 'groomsman' is just a man's man, while a bridesmaid is just the cook's girl.

Somehow, it doesn't seem quite as romantic. Perhaps there are some things that it is better not to know, especially if you are ever likely to be filling the roll of drunken uncle.

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