Bridesmen and best maids: surprising facts about wedding words
Brides weren’t always female
While the oldest recorded sense of bride is the familiar one referring to a woman, there is some evidence of the word being used in a gender-neutral manner (like spouse) from the 15th to the early 17th century: “Sweet Daughter deer…Isis blesse thee and thy Bride, With golden Fruit” (Joshua Sylvester, 1607).
Groomsmen used to be called bridesmen
Groomsmen, the attendants of the groom on his wedding day, used to be called bridemen or bridesmen, but those terms have been on the wane since the mid-19th century. Recently, the word bridesman has begun to make a comeback, but in a very different meaning, referring to a male attendant of the bride (essentially, a male bridesmaid). Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s files contain a few recent examples of groomsmaid, a female attendant to the groom. Since young people no longer spend their time in sexually segregated schools and workplaces, it is not surprising that wedding terminology has begun to change to account for cross-gender friendships.
In the UK, a wedding reception is often called a wedding breakfast—even if it happens at night
Formerly, most weddings took place in the morning, with the breakfast immediately following, so the term was more appropriate. In an 1863 manual called The Habits of Good Society, the author compares the British custom of a wedding breakfast unfavorably to the French tradition of having a ball or soirée on the evening of the ceremony, lamenting that “most people…would be gladly released from the unnatural repast at an unusual hour.” Among the “miseries of the wedding-breakfast” she includes “the headache that makes the rest of the day miserable” and “the disgust to all those articles which look so well by candlelight, but do not bear daylight.” Later generations of Britons have often moved the meal itself later in the day, but the original name has stuck for many.
Brides are older than grooms—by over 600 years
One might expect the word groom to be about the same age as the word bride, but it is of much more recent vintage. Bride is attested from Old English. In contrast, the first evidence recorded in the OED for groom (as a man at his wedding) is from Shakespeare’s Othello (1616). Groom is of course short for bridegroom, but that term isn’t much older, being recorded in OED only from 1526. The original word, circa 1000, was brydegome. Modern bridegroom probably arose as an alteration of brydegome, which is based on the Middle English word gome (Old English guma), meaning ‘man’. By the 16th century, gome was obsolete, and groom would have been more familiar. Initially, the shortened groom in this sense was rarely used except in conjunction with bride (“the bride and groom”), but today it can stand alone.
The maid of honor was once the best maid
The term best man, for the groom’s chief attendant, originated in Scotland, with the Dictionary of the Scots Language recording evidence from as early as 1782. Best maid, used for the chief bridesmaid, came about in Scotland around the same time, but never achieved widespread currency, despite being a more obvious term than maid of honor for the best man’s counterpart. The phrase maid of honor is many centuries old as used in reference to a noble attendant of a queen or princess, but the nuptial sense referring to the principal attendant of the bride (perhaps regarded as a princess for a day) didn’t arise until the late 19th century, in North America.
The ring bearer and flower girl are American inventions
The term flower girl, for a young girl who carries flowers or scatters petals in front of the bride at a wedding, originated in the US but is now common in the UK as well. The male counterpart to the flower girl is the ring bearer, who carries the wedding rings to the altar (usually on a special cushion). The OED’s first evidence for this use of ring bearer comes from William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August. In the UK, young male attendants are typically called pages or page boy, and they don’t have anything to do with the rings. When the term ring bearer is used in British contexts, it usually refers to a hobbit.
Flower girls aside, Americanophobes need not fret overmuch that Yankee wedding customs are invading the United Kingdom. The British and American wedding traditions remain distinctive, as anyone who has tasted both American (sugary spongecake) and British (dense, alcoholic fruitcake) wedding cakes can attest. And there are plenty of linguistic distinctions as well; for instance, American brides and grooms celebrate bachelorette parties and bachelor parties, whereas the corresponding British bacchanals are hen parties and stag nights. British readers may also take solace in the fact that corpus evidence suggests that one of the most recent American wedding coinages, bridezilla, remains a far greater plague in North America than in the United Kingdom.