October 13, 2000
Melinda Anonymous wrote:
I've heard or read till death us do part countless times as part of a wedding ceremony. I don't understand the grammar--death do? Us do? Neither one makes sense to me.
Guest contributor: James E. Clapp, author of the new Random House Webster's Dictionary of the Law
This traditional pledge--so familiar yet so strange to modern ears--has a fascinating history blending linguistics, law, and political intrigue. In a way, we can thank the six-times-married Henry VIII for this ringing affirmation of lifetime devotion. In 1533, Henry, desperate for an annulment of his first marriage and thwarted by the Pope, installed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer supported Henry's break with Rome and granted him his annulment. Under Henry, the Church of England generally retained its Latin Catholic ritual, but Cranmer's personal theology became increasingly Protestant.
Henry was succeeded in 1547 by nine-year-old Edward VI, whose advisors seized the opportunity to advance and consolidate Protestantism. They had the boy king appoint Cranmer to lead a project to rewrite the entire liturgy of the Church--in English--and when that was done they had Parliament pass a law prohibiting any religious practice other than in accordance with the resulting book--The Book of Common Prayer. This is universally viewed as one of the most beautifully written works in the English language. For his efforts, however, Cranmer was burned at the stake a few years later when political winds shifted briefly in the anti-reformation direction with the succession of Roman Catholic Mary Tudor to the throne.
In the marriage ceremony prescribed in that 1549 book, the marriage vow included the phrase: till death us departe. In those days the word depart (with or without the final e) meant 'to divide, separate'. (This was reflected in a Latin translation of the book in 1560, in which this clause was rendered as donec mors nos separavit--'until death has separated us').
The reason that the verb was depart rather than the third person singular indicative departeth (which today would be departs) is that in those days it was customary to use the subjunctive mood in subordinate clauses describing action to take place in the indefinite future. For example, in the King James Bible (1611), we read: "we will go along by the king's high way, until we be past thy borders." (Num. 21:22) A more familiar example is the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, with its reference to "captive Israel / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear."
The word order chosen by Cranmer (death-us-depart = subject-object-verb) is different from the usual English order (subject-verb-object); but is the usual order for Latin, and thus would have had a comfortable, traditional sound in a liturgical context. (The Latinate word order was repeated a few lines later, where the groom was directed to say "With thys ring I thee wed... ")
The phrase till death us depart lasted through several versions of The Book of Common Prayer. In the revision of 1662, however, depart suddenly became do part. By then the original meaning of depart had largely been lost, and the simple word part conveyed the meaning of separation. But after well over a century of legally enforced usage (save for two brief periods of royal or political opposition), the rhythm and sound of Cranmer's phrasing was firmly established, and replacing the prefix de- with do preserved it. This also preserved the grammatical construction: the do in death...do part is subjunctive, as in this from the King James version of Ezekiel 33:9: "if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity." (The indicative would have been doth--in modern English, does.)
Over the centuries, Cranmer's magnificent English has been adopted and adapted in many Christian churches. Many have attempted to modernize the language, as in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer (suggesting "until we are parted by death"), but few have been able to match the poetic power of the original.
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