widows and widowers

I chanced to reflect a few days ago on the words widow and widower, noting that there was “no word” (well, no olfesc — ordinary-language fixed expression of some currency) that covered them both; the union of the categories WIDOW and WIDOWER can certainly be expressed in English, but we have no quick and easy way of doing this.

So: some notes on the part of the domain of kinship vocabulary to which widow and widower belong.

Background. For whatever reason, I was thinking about my linguistics colleagues Lise Menn (who survives her late husband, the linguist Bill Bright) and Geoff Pullum (who survives his late wife, the philosopher — and, I would say, linguist as well — Barbara Scholz). (All four of these people are/were old friends of mine.) Lise and Geoff are in a natural sociocultural class in my mind, but there’s “no word”, in this special sense, for it. Current English is what I’ll call overcoded in the “survivor of deceased spouse” domain.

On missing words, from my Language Log posting of 12/2/06 “Does anyone have a word for this? Probably not.”:

In some domains of meaning, there are whole clusters of missing words; this happens when culturally important semantic features are sometimes undercoded and sometimes overcoded.  Take the domain of kinship.  In our culture, people’s sex is important, and, for relatives, it’s important whether they are related to us by blood or by marriage (whether they are consanguineal or affine kin, as the anthropologists put it).  Yet, the marking of these features in the ordinary English vocabulary of kinship is a puzzling patchwork.

Ideally, we’d have both more specific words, distinguishing relatives on these dimensions, and also more general words, disregarding one feature so that relatives can be grouped together.  Parent vs. mother/father and child vs. daughter/son come close to this ideal situation.   Sibling vs. brother/sister is a more dubious case, since for many people sibling is a technical term.  Then we get to cousin, which is undercoded (there’s a sex-neutral word, but no sex-specific ones), and niece/nephew, which is overcoded (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one).

And to aunt/uncle, which is overcoded on one dimension (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one) and undercoded on another (there are no words distinguishing consanguineal aunts/uncles from affine aunts/uncles).

Then there’s sister-in-law/brother-in-law, which are overcoded on the sex dimension, but undercoded in another way.  These words encode both an affine and a consanguineal relationship, but with two different scopings: brother-in-law is either spouse’s brother or sibling’s husband.  Many people feel that these two relationships are not equally close — in marrying, your spouse’s family is joined with yours, but when your sister marries, her husband’s family is not joined with yours in this fashion — so that these people find the use of a single word for them uncomfortable.  (As a result of the familial closeness of spouse’s brother, some people — I am one — are willing to extend sister-in-law to spouse’s brother’s wife.)

In any case, you can feel a need for a word and quite easily have none to hand.

For widow(er), we see overcoding on the sex dimension. But wait, there’s more.

Historical and morphological note. Widow goes back to Old English, but widower is a bit more recent: OED2 has a first cite in 1362. It’s unusual that a term with male reference is morphologically based on the corresponding term with female reference; compare English actor (originally with male reference) vs. actress, or French cousin (masculine gender) vs. cousine (feminine gender).

A more striking imbalance between widow and widower shows up in the PSP verbTo forms derived from them, widowed and widowered. As I noted in a 11/4/10 posting on “widowered”,

It’s in OED2, but marked as “rare”. And you can google it up, but not in large numbers, especially as compared to widowed.

and added a social note:

The long-range social history here is that a woman without a husband … has no clear social status; she’s in limbo. Times have long changed, but the attitudes remain, so that being widowed defines you in a way that being widowered does not.

To embroider on this, in times past, a woman was at first under the control (figuratively but sometimes literally) of her father until she married, at which point she was under her husband’s control. If her husband died, she entered into this sort of limbo state of being a widow and would be socially identified as such (“the widow (lady) Adams”). A very different social story applied to a man whose wife died.

State nouns vs. relational nouns. There’s a striking difference between the syntax of widow and widower: widow can be used either as a state noun (She’s a widow) or a relational noun (She’s John Smith’s widow, She’s the widow of John Smith), but widower has only the state use (He’s a widower; *He’s Jane Smith’s widower, *He’s the widower of Jane Smith). Once again, we see that a woman can be identified by her relationship to her spouse, but a man is not.

(To complete the patterns, there are also nouns that have only relational uses, though the syntax here is more complex than with widow(er): for instance, many kin terms, like cousin and sister-in-law. And, entertainingly, mistress in the quasi-marital sense. One of the complexities is that in addition to occurrence with the of-possessive and ‘s-possessive, these nouns can also be used as direct objects of possessive have: She has a cousin in Honolulu, He has a mistress in Chicago.)

From sex-marked to sex-neutral. Widow and widower in NOAD2: “a woman who has lost her husband by death and has not remarried” and “a man who has lost his wife by death and has not remarried”, respectively. Similarly, in Wikipedia: “A widow is a woman whose husband has died, while a widower is a man whose wife has died.” (without the no-remarriage clause).

In these definitions (and many others you can find), sex is indicated for both people in a marital relationship. With the coming of same-sex marriage, some dictionaries have adjusted their definitions in such a way that the sex of the referent continues to be marked, but the sex of the marital partner is not. Notably, AHD5 (2011) has definitions like those in NOAD2, but with spouse instead of husband or wife. I noted this shift in a 8/2/09 posting, and here’s the story from the lgbt magazine The Advocate:

“The job of dictionaries is primarily to describe how language is used, not to dictate how it should be used,” lexicographer Steve Kleinedler, The American Heritage Dictionary’s new executive editor, wrote in a 2009 op-ed.

The statement is part American Heritage Dictionary ethos, part personal experience. In 2009, Kleinedler’s husband died suddenly, just two months after Kleinedler and fellow editors had revised the definitions of several marriage-related words to reflect the changing culture. The definition of widower, for example, was revised from “a man whose wife has died and who has not remarried” to “a man whose spouse has died and who has not remarried.”

Wider lexical horizons. From the Wikipedia article (repeating the bit above):

A widow is a woman whose husband has died, while a widower is a man whose wife has died. The state of having lost one’s spouse to death is termed widowhood.

… This term “widowhood” can be used for either sex, at least according to some dictionaries [Collins, Oxford], but the word widowerhood is also listed in some dictionaries [Collins, Merriam-Webster]… The adjective form [well, the PSP verb form, which can be used as an adjective] for either sex is widowed [Collns, Cambridge].

But note widowered in my posting on the word (where I note that “widowered” is not a possible relationship status on Facebook; you’re “single”, “widowed”, or “It’s complicated”). Usage clearly varies here. I’m not comfortable using widowed and widowhood with reference to a man; the female component of widow is too prominent for me in these words, but clearly usage is broadening. Perhaps eventually widow itself will follow the rest and come to refer to any person whose spouse has died.

Beyond marriage. I put off here the complex issue of how to talk about people in marriage-like relatiionships — in enduring intimate relationships (beyond dating) but not legally married. For instance, how to talk about someone whose (domestic) partner (in any of the senses of this term) has died but who has not embarked on a new partnership.

9 Responses to “widows and widowers”

  1. rjp Says:

    At the risk of being too frivolous, WIDOW ⇒ WIDOWER ⇒ WIDOWEST?

  2. Colin Pye Says:

    Hmmm… I thought of it with “er” as “one who does”, bake –> baker bank –> banker, widow –> widower. It’s interesting to see that it’s tagged to the gender of the survivor, not the deceased.

  3. H. S. Gudnason Says:

    I question your statement that widower isn’t used relationally. I’m a widower, and get together sometimes with people who were originally friends of my late wife. Last week a person I hadn’t met before and I were the first ones to arrive at a lunch meeting, and I introduced myself as [my late wife’s] widower. For exactly the reasons you give for the late arrival of “widower,” I think it may be unusual, but certainly not asterisk-worthy. As men and women socialize more frequently in a sex-neutral, non-dating way, I think the usage might increase.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’m not surprised that the word has extended itself in this way for some people; it’s natural to make widower more parallel to widow. I’m a widower twice over (if you count the long-time domestic partnership as a marriage-equivalent), but I’m not (yet) comfortable referring to myself as Ann’s widower or Jacques’s widower.

  4. jlundell Says:

    By coincidence, an example of another marriage-connected pair with I’m thinking pretty much the same property, a couple days earlier at World Wide Words: bride/bridegroom.


  5. msjinnifer Says:

    Interesting! Not strictly on-topic, but in English there is no word for a parent whose child has died, although we have ‘orphan’ for the converse.

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