The word comes from the Old English “hony moone.” Hony, a reference to honey, refers to the “indefinite period of tenderness and pleasure experienced by a newly wed couple,” and how sweet the new marriage is. Moone, meanwhile, refers to the fleeting amount of time that sweetness would last. While honeymoon has a positive connotation today, it was first used as a term to warn newlyweds about waning love.
The first recorded description of the word was in 1542, when Samuel Johnson wrote, “The first month after marriage, when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure; originally having no reference to the period of a month, but comparing mutual affection of newly married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full that it begins to wane…”
One theory is that ancient Babylon, about 2000 BC, had a tradition where for the first month after a wedding the bride’s father would give the groom all the mead he wanted. Babylon’s calendar was a lunar calendar based on the moon. They called that month “honey month” which became honeymoon.
Similar to this is a claim that there existed an ancient practice of kidnapping a bride-to-be and drinking mead (honey wine) at the time of Atilla the Hum – AD 433 to AD 453.
Another theory on the source of the word is that in ancient times honeymoon referred to the time of year when bee honey was ready to be harvested from hives or the wild, which made it the sweetest time of the year. This was usually around the summer solstice.
Yet another theory is that the word dates back to the 5th century, when cultures represented calendar time with moon cycles. Back then, a newlywed couple drank mead (the “honey”) during their first moon of marriage. Mead is a honey-based wine believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
A widely disputed explanation of the term claims that it comes from a tradition in a number of cultures where mead was drunk in great quantities at weddings and then after the ceremony nuptial couples were given a month’s supply of mead. It was believed that by faithfully drinking mead for that first month, the woman would “bear fruit” and a child would be born within the year.
Here’s a passage from Richard Huloet’s Abecedarium Anglico Latinum of 1552 (in modernized spelling): “Honeymoon, a term proverbially applied to such as be new married, which will not fall out at the first, but …” Putting it simply, it was that charmed period when married love was at first as sweet as honey, but which waned like the moon and in roughly the same period of time.
While most couples today travel on their honeymoon to be alone, it wasn’t always that way. Couples in 19th century Britain used their honeymoon to go on a bridal tour, where the pair traveled to visit friends and family who could not attend the wedding ceremony.
Something the same idea seems to be rather in vogue today. The couple chooses what I think is called a “destination wedding” where they fly off to Mexico, or Hawaii, or maybe the Highlands of Scotland and arrange to be married there, inviting family and friends to join them. Good news for travel agencies!