It’s a small detail in a story that’s not about gender: today, Times media columnist David Carr referred to Laura and Chris Amico, founders of the crime-tracking website Homicide Watch DC, as a “wife and husband team.” Carr says not using the more common “husband and wife” was a conscious decision, one that made sense because Laura Amico is the “conceptual author” of Homicide Watch DC: “I see no reason why she should have to hang onto the back of his shirt in the hierarchy of language, so I put her first.”
“Wife and husband” may not have caught on in a broader way just yet. Use of the term in news articles looks relatively flat over the past eight years, and while it’s risen in search frequency, it’s done so only in tandem with “husband and wife”:
Another variant on male-first language, “women and men,” appears to have enjoyed a very modest uptick in news hits since 2008:
Tracking “women and men” in books archived by Google shows a much bigger jump, starting in 1970:
“Women and men” began to drop around 1997, but so did “men and women.” “Husband and wife” also dropped off a lot in the mid-70s, though “wife and husband” didn’t rise accordingly:
The Times used “wife and husband team” a handful of times prior to 1980 — as in this 1972 piece [PDF] on the incoming president of Bennington College and her husband, the vice president — and has done so at least once earlier this year, to describe the founders of New York restaurant Upstate. It’s hard to tell if the phrase will rise the way “women and men” has. But Carr thinks male-first language in general is a relic of an earlier era. He says, “it’s less about being a feminist — I can be be as sexist as the next frat boy in my lesser moments — and more about being the parent of three daughters and wanting them to come of age in a media wold that reflects the age that we are actually living in.”
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Meh. I think it has less to do with gender order, and more to do with rhythm and speech patterns. While the rhythm and syllabic stresses of “women and men” is essentially the same as “men and women”, “wife and husband” is more awkward rhythmically than “husband and wife”. It’s two duple rhythms versus a more facile triplet followed by a single stress.(WIFE and HUS-band vs. HUS-band-and WIFE). Besides, I have always heard “Ladies and Gentlemen” (or “Mesdames et Messieurs”) and never the reverse.
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