Out there: 'The wife'

If I wanted to dis the principal and primary companion in my life, I could have chosen a number of other expressions.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
I'm always a little wary when people come up and ask if they can ask a question, because this generally foretells, at least during a private conversation, that something awkward is about to unfold. Otherwise the questioner would simply blurt out the question. During my college days in the States, the words "Can I ask you a question?" were always followed by something kippa-related, such as, "Why are you wearing a coaster on your head?" Recently, after a lecture to a group, one listener's "Can I ask you a question?" was followed by the rather tasteless, "Why do you move around so much when you talk, do you have a neurological disorder?" So I knew what was coming the other day when, after having just written a column referring again to my helpmeet as "the wife," a woman approached and asked if she could ask me a question. I knew I was in for a shelling. "She doesn't mind," I said, preempting her. "The wife doesn't mind. Believe me, if she did, I wouldn't be calling her 'the wife.' We've been married for 22 years, and if this bothered her, or if she found it offensive, I'd long ago have ditched the term." But I've found the term does bother people, predominantly women people. And I simply believe those people should relax, lighten up, sip a Coke and not look for nefarious meanings where none exists. I'VE HAD the opportunity over my journalistic career to write hundreds of thousands of words, and nearly 9,000 articles, and the one term for which I consistently take the most flack is "the wife." Not the "West Bank," not "Judea and Samaria," not "settlers," not "terrorists," but "the wife," as if the use of the definite article here indicated some kind of disrespect. It doesn't. The use of the definite article designates that my wife is the principal and primary companion in my life. If I said "a wife," I could understand the protest. But the term "the wife" sets her apart. The use of the definite article here also indicates that I grew up in the homey climes of the American West, and was raised speaking in a folksy manner (when we were first married, I liked to introduce the wife as the pard'ner, as in, "Hi, I'm Herb Keinon, and this is my pard'ner"). The use of the definite article indicates that I was influenced heavily by the writing of fabled Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who used the term without apology. And it indicates that I took a real liking to the titles of two works forced down my throat in high school: The Wife's Lament and Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. "The wife" does not indicate disrespect. If I wanted to dis the wife, God forbid, I could have chosen a number of other expressions. I could have chosen the old fashioned term "squaw," as in "The squaw and I were discussing the matter the other day." I could have used the very British "ball and chain," as in "The ball and chain wouldn't let me." The 1940s "little missus," as in "The little missus answered the boy," would also do the trick, as would the 1960s-vintage "old lady," as in "Me and the old lady took the VW van out for a spin." Those terms, in my thinking, have disparaging connotations. But "the wife?" Please. NO, "the wife" actually signifies respect. If the prophet Isaiah can refer to his wife as "the prophetess" (Isaiah 8:3), then I'm on safe ground referring to my consort as "the wife." But, asked the woman who asked if she could ask a question, why not just say "my wife?" Interesting idea, that. I could call the mother of my children "my wife," but I think that sounds too possessive. It's like saying "my book," "my computer," "my toe." She's not mine. She's not an object. She's her own being. I don't use the term "my wife" for the same reason that the wife doesn't, in Hebrew, refer to me as ba'ali (my husband, literally, "my owner" - talk about possessive). So rather than call me ba'ali, the wife calls me ishi, literally "my man." I actually like being called her man. It makes me feel big, muscle-rippled, handsome, even fearsome, as in, "Don't mess with me, my man is just around the corner." I could call her my soul mate, but that is sickening; or my love muffin, but that is gooey; or my better half, but that is downright patronizing; or my significant other, but that would make the wife sound like an alien. So I chose "the wife," to go along with the other main actors in my life: the kids, who include the lad, the daughter, Skippy and the boy. Not "my lad," "my daughter," "Skippy o' mine," or "my boy." Interestingly, no one has ever objected to my calling the kids "the kids." Indeed, I think "the wife" should be seen as an honorific. My error, however, is that I never capitalized the term, which I will do from now on. For if Menachem Schneerson can be the Rebbe, Bruce Springsteen the Boss, Elvis Presley the King, and that borough in New York, the Bronx, then Mrs. Keinon can certainly be The Wife. No apologies necessary.