In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


Breaking Up

Tying the bonds of matrimony makes things knotty and — as only metaphors are free to do — also cause the knot to come untied. Holy wedlock has a way of becoming unholy deadlock (19thC.) during a divorce. Settling down was easy, settling up — we'll — that's something else.

It started innocently enough with alimony (c.1635), traditionally, the money paid to a woman after a divorce — from the Latin alere, "to nourish." It also made for the alimentary tract that you learned about in Biology 101. Alimony was originally "food money," which later increased under the law to include other living expenses and expanded yet further where the wife was the primary wage earner.

That didn't satisfy everyone. More recently, living together but not being legally married, qualified one or the other for what is called palimony, a phrase first coined by celebrity divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson in 1977 when his client, Michelle Triola Marvin filed an unsuccessful suit against actor Lee Marvin.

Either way, the dissolution of bonds ends with the distribution of household paraphernalia. Their source is the Greek para, "beyond" or "away," + pherna, "dowry," i.e. the personal belongings which the woman brought to the marriage apart from the dowry and those given her by her husband and which belonged to her — a concept incorporated into the law in the 17th century. Eventually, they all became joint property, transforming paraphernalia into anybody's possessions or equipment. That is until the couple separated and its ownership came into question. Thanks to lawyers, that sets in motion a process much more complex than alimentary.