A huge find for the OED – a startling antedating for partner meaning ‘spouse’
When the Oxford English Dictionary got involved with Shakespeare’s World, we knew that these documents would provide invaluable data on Early Modern English in everyday, non-print use. What we hoped, but couldn’t be so sure of, was that this project would also produce some changes to the historical record of English so startling and immediately relatable that they can help explain to the general public why it’s worth doing this sort of painstaking work. Early in the project we found an example of the phrase white lie that pushed the record back by nearly two centuries, from 1741 to 1567. But we suspected that better was still to come, and now we’ve found it, with really breath-taking earlier evidence of partner in the sense of ‘spouse’.
When we revised the entry for partner for OED in 2005, we searched hard for earlier evidence of all eleven of its separately defined senses. One sense that couldn’t help but attract a lot of attention was the one that OED defines as (sense 5a):
A person who is linked by marriage to another, a spouse; a member of a couple who live together or are habitual companions; a lover.
Especially in the UK, this use of the word has considerable currency, especially as a convenient means of referring to the ‘significant other’ in a person’s life without any particular implications as to legal marital status, sexuality, etc. As OED notes, it is:
Now increasingly used in legal and contractual contexts to refer to a member of a couple in a long-standing relationship of any kind, so as to give equal recognition to marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, etc.
Where does Shakespeare’s World fit into this picture? Back in 2005, the earliest example of this sense that OED’s researchers could find was from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book X, line 128):
I stand Before my Judge, either to undergoe My self the total Crime, or to accuse My other self, the partner of my life.
Not only is this example from a core canonical literary author, it is also essentially self-explaining, as part of the longer phrase “the partner of my life”. Other early examples are similar, like this one from Tobias Smollett’s tragedy The Regicide in 1749:
What means the gentle Part’ner of my Heart?
But in 2017, Shakespeare’s World volunteers started to report that they were finding partner meaning ‘spouse’ in correspondence from the late 1500s and early 1600s. I must confess that my initial response was scepticism. I went back and searched text collections such as Early English Books Online again: there were one or two uses in phrases that could (maybe just) be seen as precursors of the use in Milton, but nothing to really suggest that partner had developed the meaning ‘spouse’ by this date. But Shakespeare’s World was definitely turning up the goods, like this example from 1577:
If by death my partner should lose her partner I shall prouide for her out of that litle a competent partners part. as touchinge my partners apparell I haue sent vnto her the graue determynacion of a taylor.
Pulling together the examples showed something else: there were lots of instances, but they were all from the correspondence of two people, Richard Broughton and his wife Anne (née Bagot), writing to members of their close family circle (especially Anne’s father, Richard Bagot). In fact, they began using partner in reference to one another before their wedding. Here is another example, from one of Anne’s letters:
My Euer good brother mr. Higines opinione was, that my Partner mvst bee att the bathe before maye, hie is gone thether & on satter day I shall heare Doctar shurwoodes opinione.
So what is going on here? Perhaps partner was in widespread use meaning ‘spouse’ in the late 1500s and early 1600s, and we just need more access to personal letters, diaries, etc. to give us more examples. But, if so, it’s surprising that we have no other examples from any other source – including other documents that have been transcribed on Shakespeare’s World, as well as other collections of correspondence from the period. Perhaps instead this was something that Richard and Anne Broughton innovated for themselves – it’s not so very surprising a development from the other earlier meanings of partner, and we can say fairly confidently that it was available as part of the potential meaning of the word. And, although Richard Broughton appears a rather unattractive figure from the historical record of his legal and business activities, the picture that emerges from the letters is of two people with a (linguistically) playful side, with anagrammatic respellings such as “Agant Bona” for Anna Bagot, and nicknames for various family members.
For the present, examples of use by both Richard and Anne have been added to the OED entry, with a note:
Early usage history: Quots. 1577 and 1603 come from the correspondence of Richard and Anne Broughton (née Bagot), who use the term repeatedly in referring to one another in correspondence with other members of their family circle. Such use has not been found elsewhere at this date.
But perhaps new evidence can change that picture again. If you find such evidence, please let us know – we’ll be as thrilled as you.