As a culture evolves, so does its language—not just the words but the meanings they convey. The word "wedding" is a prime example of this. As the purpose of a wedding transformed—from its initial use as a profitable arrangement to its modern-day symbol of a consensual partnership—the words and meanings to describe it followed suit.
One of the earliest traces of the word is linked to the Old English word "weddung," which means a "state of being wed; pledge, betrothal; action of marrying." It's also connected to the Old English "weddian"—translated as "to pledge oneself, vow, betroth or marry"—as well as the Middle English word "wedde," yet another translation of "to pledge."
The "pledge" theme as a translation for wedding isn't a coincidence. After all, a wedding—or a marriage for that matter—wasn't always a symbol of a couple's love and their vow to remain true in good times and bad.
According to the Etymology Dictionary, "pledge" was synonymous with weddings because the union was closer to a business transaction rather than a celebration of love, especially in the case of arranged marriages. It was more than a couple becoming husband and wife; it was about two families joining forces, gaining allies or acquiring a larger fortune.
In some cultures, families would even marry one of their children to another family's deceased child's spirit in order to keep their alliances strong.
Marriage was also about keeping the bonds ironclad within one's family. According to Rutgers anthropologist Robin Fox, the majority of marriages throughout history were between first and second cousins, particularly among royal families.
Meanwhile, a wedding didn't necessarily signify a commitment between a man and just one woman; rather, weddings didn't begin signifying monogamy until the ninth century. Even then, it took another 10 centuries for extramarital affairs—especially those committed by men—to be considered unacceptable once a wedding had taken place. It wasn't until the church stepped in that weddings began requiring a more steadfast commitment from the couple. And up until only 50 years ago, equality wasn't a guarantee in any marriage.
The translation of a wedding being tied to "a pledge" is also a theme in other languages. For example, in German it's "wette," which means "a bet, wager." However, the similarity in meanings between "wed" and "marry" is unique to the English language.
In modern English, the word "wedding" is unequivocally linked to marriage. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a wedding is "a marriage ceremony," with marriage being defined as "the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law."
As market economics shifted and younger generations became less reliant on (or tolerant of) their parents' influence, the concept of a "pledge" in regards to a wedding shifted as well. A pledge for money or a powerful alliance was replaced by pledges to respect and honor one another, to remain faithful during the hard times and care for one another during times of illness. If any pledges do involve money, it's a vow to mutually support each another with shared finances—that is, unless their prenuptial agreement says otherwise.