Wife

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  • 1. a. A woman: formerly in general sense; in later use restricted to a woman of humble rank or ‘of low employment’ (J.), esp. one engaged in the sale of some commodity. Now dial., exc. with prefixed descriptive word, esp. in compounds such as ALE-WIFE1, APPLE-wife, FISHWIFE, OLD WIFE, OYSTER-wife, etc.
b. Qualified by old, esp. in the phr. old wives' fable, story, tale: see OLD WIFE 1.
c. Wife of Bath, one of the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; used allusively (usu. attrib.), chiefly with reference to sexual appetite and outspokenness.
  • 2. a. A woman joined to a man by marriage; a married woman. Correlative of HUSBAND n. 2. (The ordinary current sense.)
b. Phrases. (a) to wife (TO prep. 11b), for a wife, to be one's wife: in such phrases as to take to wife, to marry (somewhat arch.); {dag}to give (grant) to wife, to bestow in marriage; {dag}to have (hold) to wife, to have as one's wife, be the husband of; to will to wife, to desire to marry.
(b) wife's light, a light (in a church) maintained by married women (cf. maiden's light, MAIDEN n. 10).
(c) all the world and his wife (humorous colloq.), all men and women, everybody: usually hyperbolically for a large and miscellaneous body or company of people of both sexes.
(d) wife and mother, a conventional epithet describing a woman who shows a zealous devotion to her family (now also somewhat joc.).
(e) preceded by an adj. or n. denoting the husband's occupation (freq. of a Mil. character, as navy, service wife), and esp. connoting a wife who fulfils official expectations of this role.

Also in various other phrases, as bachelor's wife (BACHELOR 4b), wife of one's bosom (BOSOM n. 1c), wife of the left hand (LEFT HAND 2), man and wife (MAN n.1 8).

c. (a) euphem. A kept mistress, concubine.
(b) a wife in every port, a licence or indulgence (jocularly) said to be enjoyed by sailors.
d. Applied as a term of affection to a female friend. Obs.
e. transf. The female of a pair of the lower animals; the mate of a male animal.
f. fig. of a thing: see quots. See also Dutch wife s.v. DUTCH A. 4.
g. The passive member of a homosexual partnership. slang.
  • 3. The mistress of a household; the hostess or landlady of an inn. In quot. c 1430 = housewife, economist. Obs. exc. as surviving in GOODWIFE 1, HOUSEWIFE 1.
  • 4. Collectors' name for a moth, Catocala nupta, also called Willow Red Underwing.
  • 5. attrib. and Comb. a. attrib. (a) of or pertaining to a wife or wives, as WIFEKIN, WIFTHING;
(b) appositive = ‘that is a wife’, as wife-slave, -whore ({dag}-houre). b. obj. (a) with agent-n., as wife-basher, -beater, -broker, -hunter, -seeker; (b) with n. of action, as wife-bashing, -battering, -beating, -murder, -purchase, -slaughter;
(c) with pres. pple., as wife-beating, -hunting adjs. c. instr. = ‘with or by a wife’, as wife-awed, -worn adjs.
d. Special Combs.: wife-bound a., bound or united to a wife, married; wife-carl Sc., a man who occupies himself with a woman's or housewife's work, a ‘cotquean’; wife-old a., Sc., old enough to be a wife, of marriageable age; wife-ridden a., tyrannized over by one's wife, ‘hen-pecked’; wife-swapping, the interchange of marital partners for sexual purposes within a social group; hence wife-swap n. (occas. as v. intr.); wife-swapper; wife-widow (nonce-wd.), a wife living apart from her husband.

Hence wifekin, wifelet, wifeling, wifelkin (dial.), as terms of endearment = little wife; wifeship, the position or relation of a wife; wifeward adv., towards or to one's wife. (All nonce-wds.)

See also