Another find from Shakespeare’s World: a startling antedating for ‘partner’ meaning ‘spouse’

By Philip Durkin, Deputy Chief Editor of the OED

One of the most distinctive modern uses of partner is to denote the ‘significant other’ in one’s life. OED3 defines this sense (5a) as:

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.

When this entry was revised in 2005, the earliest example that could be found for this sense 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.

It is notable that the sense occurs here as part of a phrase, “the partner of my life”, which basically explains the metaphor that is in play here (it’s interesting to compare the more recent collocation life partner, which OED records from 1809 onwards). Other early uses are typically in phrases of this type, like the next example OED gives, from Tobias Smollett’s tragedy The Regicide in 1749:

What means the gentle Part’ner of my Heart?

It was therefore a huge surprise when the work of volunteers on the Shakespeare’s World collaboration started turning up multiple examples of partner apparently meaning ‘spouse’ in letters dating from the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. We looked closely at the contexts to verify how the word was being used. The conclusion seemed inescapable that this was the intended meaning. Also, unlike the self-explaining “the partner of my life” from Milton, here we were finding the simple word partner used in everyday contexts, as in the multiple uses in this extract from a letter of 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.

We also looked again at other sources from this period, such as the huge Early English Books Online collection of printed books, or other collections of personal letters: we could find nothing similar to these uses coming out of the Shakespeare’s World project. There were one or two uses of partner in metaphors that could perhaps be seen as precursors of the use in Milton (but, on balance, probably weren’t close enough to call examples of this sense), but there was nothing remotely like the uses in the 1577 letter quoted above.

So, we went back to the Shakespeare’s World examples, and had a good look at the letters in which they were occurring. In addition to how confidently and naturally partner was being used to mean ‘spouse’, one other thing really stood out: all of the letters were written by the same couple, Richard Broughton and his wife Anne Broughton (née Bagot), and written to other members of their close family circle (especially to Anne’s father, Richard Bagot); in fact, the earliest uses by Richard date back to just before the time of their (prospective) marriage. Here is another example, where Anne is referring to Richard:

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.

Richard Broughton was a prominent figure in the Welsh marches and man-of-affairs for Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; he emerges from the historical record as a rather unsympathetic figure, a man keen on securing his own financial advantage at every opportunity, “earning a a judge of very little integrity” (History of Parliament online). A rather different side to both Richard and Anne emerges from these letters, who display real affection within their family circle, amidst their assorted everyday business. They also show a playful side, with frequent use of nicknames for family members, and semi-anagrammatic spellings of their names in the sign-offs to letters, such as “Agant Bona” for Anna Bagot. It is perhaps in this context that we should see their very frequent use of partner in referring to one another, as one of the little linguistic ticks of their correspondence.

The metaphorical development of partner to mean ‘spouse’ is hardly a startling one: we can see the link clearly in Milton’s “the partner of my life”. What is rather startling is to find this meaning in apparently perfectly natural everyday use within one family circle so much earlier than any other evidence available to us.

Were Richard and Anne Broughton linguistic innovators, playfully hitting upon a potential meaning development of the word partner long before anyone else? Is their usage an isolated ‘bubble’ completely separate from the later use? Or were they perhaps simply enthusiastic early adopters of a usage that was more widespread in the late 1500s and early 1600s, and that could have informed the later use by Milton and others?

One thing that would, of course, help resolve these questions would be to find more evidence of partner meaning ‘spouse’ before Milton. Can you perhaps help? If so, we would be delighted to hear from you.