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Higher half (the entire story)

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Higher half (the entire story)

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Q: I’m inquisitive about “wives.” When did the time period come to imply spouses?

A: When “higher half” appeared within the mid-Sixteenth century, it meant “the bigger portion of one thing” or “greater than half,” in keeping with the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED quotation is from a spiritual treatise defending the Roman Catholic Church towards criticism by the Church of England:

“it woulde effectively lacke the higher halfe of jx. yeres [nine years].” From A Return of Untruths (1566), by the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Stapleton, responding to a treatise by John Jewel, the Church of England’s Bishop of Salisbury.

The standard sense now, which the OED defines as “an individual’s husband, spouse, or (in later use) companion,” appeared within the late Sixteenth century.

The primary quotation is from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, revealed posthumously in 1590, 4 years after the writer’s loss of life:

“My deare, my higher halfe (mentioned hee) I finde I have to now leaue thee” (the dying Argalus is talking right here to his spouse Parthenia).

The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for plural variations of “higher half.” The earliest examples we’ve present in searches of digitized books are from the 18th century. Listed below are two of them:

  • “ ‘I’m glad to acknowledge, that, although we’ve no gods to occupy a mansion professedly constructed for them, but we’ve secured their wives, for we’ve goddesses to whom all of us most willingly bow down.’ ” From Evelina (1778), by the English novelist Fanny Burney. (Lord Orville is talking to Captain Mirvan.)
  • “I belief the instance of our higher halfs will tempt the women all to emulate these virtues which have made us for ever surrender the follies of trend, and commit our future lives to that solely actual consolation which heaven has bestowed on mortals—virtuous, mutual, wedded love.” From The Ton; or Follies of Vogue (1788), a comic book play by the Scottish writer Eglantine Wallace. (Lord Raymond is talking to Woman Raymond.)

In case you’re questioning, each “higher halfs” and “wives” had been frequent within the late 18th century, however “wives” has been the same old plural for the final two centuries,  in keeping with a comparability with Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The OED says the phrase “higher half” has had two different senses, “an in depth and intimate pal” (1596) and “an individual’s soul” (1629), however the first is now uncommon and the second out of date.

We should always add that within the spousal sense, “higher half” is commonly used affectionately or in a semi-humorous means.

Lastly, listed below are a couple of different options for “husband” or “spouse,” and the dates of their earliest OED citations: “partner” (earlier than 1200), “companion” (1577), “helpmate” (1815), and “ball and chain” (1921).

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