The linguistics of marriage laws

The linguistics of marriage laws

A couple of weeks ago, the simple English word “keep" got into the headlines. Questions were raised on the practice of referring to a woman as somebody’s “keep". When the word was used in a judgement delivered in the Supreme Court, a senior lawyer objected to it and asked for its expunction.

The use of “keep" as a synonym of concubine is not found in standard English. It appears to be a translation of the corresponding Indian term. In native English, the expression is “kept woman". As a noun, the word means one’s livelihood, as in “earn one’s keep".

One of the judges asked the lawyer whether “concubine" would be preferable to “keep". Perhaps it would, since its Latin origin hides the meaning of the roots. The word goes back to Latin concumbere, “to lie with", and, therefore, the idea of “sleeping together" is implied. A simple definition of concubine is “a woman who cohabits with a man without being his wife".

Another objectionable term used in the court was one that still carries the stamp of slang, “one-night stand". This expression originally referred to a theatrical performance for a single night at a particular location, after which the touring group moved on. Today, the phrase refers to a casual sexual encounter. The French equivalent is liaison sans lendemain, “liaison without a tomorrow".

Synonyms for concubine abound in the language. In an interesting study of vocabulary, Julia Penelope found that terms for women who lead promiscuous lives abound, whereas corresponding terms for playboy behaviour are few. She could count 220 of the former against merely 20 of the latter. Many of these words have undergone degeneration of meaning.

The word “mistress", for example, once used as the feminine form of “master", today refers to a woman who has a long-term sexual relationship with a man who is married to someone else. Demosthenes, Athenian orator of the 4th century BC, said: “We have mistresses for pleasure, concubines to care for our daily body’s needs and wives to bear us legitimate children."

European history has stories of “royal mistresses" who wielded great influence over their men. In royal marriages, the bride was generally chosen on the basis of dynastic and political factors. So mistresses were chosen to meet the monarch’s personal preferences. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV of France, was an important member of the French court and exercised control over political decisions; and tourists visiting the Forbidden City are bound to hear stories of Cixi, the concubine who became China’s last empress.

In our concern for decorum in the use of language, we should not forget that the central issue here is the definition of marriage, which should determine the nature of the relationship and the rights and privileges of the partners. When does a live-in relationship become a deemed marriage?

In Europe, the concept of common law marriage has gained legal recognition and wide acceptance. The marriage is not licensed, not documented and not officially solemnized. The couple, being of legal age and being unmarried, cohabit by mutual consent. The only legal requirements: They must have lived together for a long period and must present themselves as spouses before the public. These requirements are summed up in the phrase “marriage by cohabitation with habit and repute".

In the present case, the judges have already given their ruling on the rights of live-in couples. In the coming decades, the Indian judiciary will surely have to examine more kinds of “irregular marriages", and rightly interpret the law on matters of inheritance, maintenance, parenthood, divorce and palimony.

Comments are welcome at