The phrase "marriage lines" is listed in the entry for marriage
in the Oxford English Dictionary Online (paid subscription required)
. The phrase is characterized as a colloquial
term for a marriage certificate, expecially that held by a bride. The first documented use of this phrase in print was in The Times
on 25 March 1818.
As "marriage lines" is considered a colloquialism
, it is not surprising that it is not found in written or printed form until 1818. In fact, it is a mark of its pervasiveness in the language by this time that it did find its way into print. A colloquialism is, by definition, an expression which is not typically used in formal speech or writing. But it is a common part of informal speech, the daily conversation of regular people. So, it is clear that "marriage lines" was used in daily speech by ordinary people for many years before its first appearance in The Times
"Marriage lines" is also an idiom
, as it seems quite clear it is peculiar to the English speakers of the British Isles. There is no evidence this phrase was commonly used by the populations of any of the countries of the European Continent, or even in America or Canada, except by native British speakers.
So what is the origin of this charming expression for a marriage certificate? And why were the "marriage lines" so important to the women who possessed them?
As the weather was fine, they had a pleasant walk of about half a mile across the park. Every park has its beauty and its prospects; and Elizabeth saw much to be pleased with, though she could not be in such raptures as Mr. Collins expected the scene to inspire, and was but slightly affected by his enumeration of the windows in front of the house, and his relation of what the glazing altogether had originally cost Sir Lewis de Bourgh.
— Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 29
And yet, though Elizabeth Bennet was not impressed by this grand display of ostentation, she was aware, as was Mr. Collins, that windows were an expensive luxury commodity during the Regency since they were essentially taxed twice. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, both the Window Tax and the Glass Excise Tax were the law of the land.