Polygyny vs. Polygamy: What’s the Difference?

A marriage between two people is an example of a monogamous relationship. 

Polygamy describes any group marriage, consisting of three or more people. The word can also refer to sexual relationships or the mating habits of animals. Polygyny is a particular type of polygamous relationship, in which one man partners with multiple females. When one female partners with multiple males, we call it polyandry. 

According to the Pew Research Center, “Polygamy usually takes the form of polygyny—when a man marries multiple women.” Critics of the practice, such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee, call for the abolishment of polygamy around the world. They insist that such an action would protect women and children. In the United States, polygamous relationships are already illegal. 

Still, some fundamentalist Mormons promote the idea of plural marriage. They’re not alone. Although many countries no longer permit polygamy, polygamous families have existed throughout history. Even in modern times, polygamous marriage remains widespread in some areas. Eleven percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa live in arrangements that include more than one spouse. Some countries, such as India, Malaysia, The Philippines, and Singapore, allow legal marriages between three or more partners for Muslims. In other countries, like Sweden, a plural marriage conducted abroad qualifies as a legal marriage, but some legal advantages only apply to the first wife. 

Given the prevalence of plural marriage in places ranging from Kenya to Saudi Arabia, it may be useful to know the difference between “polygamy” and “polygyny”—regardless of your opinions about the practice.

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Etymology

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, polygamy comes from the Greek prefix poly-, meaning “many,” and the Greek root gamete/gametes, meaning “wife/husband.” The latter words originated with the Proto-Indo-European root gem(e)-, “to marry.” The Greek word polygamos, meaning “often married,” adopted the meaning we use today by the Late Greek period (polygamia). By the 1590’s, the word entered the English lexicon. “Polygamous,” the adjective, followed in 1610. 

Polygyny also derives from the Greek prefix poly-, along with a Greek root of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) origin. In this case, the Greek root gynē, “woman, wife,” evolved from the PIE root gwen-, also meaning “woman.” The word “polygyny” has been used in English since 1780. 

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines the word “polygamy” as a noun. 

It means:

  • marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time
  • the state of being polygamous

In contrast, the word “polygyny” is a noun that means, “The state or practice of having more than one wife or female mate at a time.”

Whereas a polygamous relationship can involve more than two spouses of either gender, a polygynous relationship only involves one male and multiple females. 

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for polygamy include:

  • bigamy
  • polyandry
  • polygyny

Thesaurus.com lists the following as synonyms for polygyny:

  • bigamy
  • polyandry

Other Words and Phrases

Polygamous has several definitions, which include “bearing both hermaphrodite and unisexual flowers on the same plant,” “relating to or practicing polygamy,” and having more than one mate at one time.”

Polyandrous is an adjective that describes a sexual relationship or marriage between one woman and multiple men. 

Monogamy refers to a sexual or marriage relationship between two people of either gender. 

Polyamory is the practice of engaging in multiple open romantic relationships at the same time.

Bigamy describes the act of entering into marriage with one person while still legally married to another. A person can only be a bigamist in a country that outlaws polygamy. 

The Words in Context

“Utah had applied for statehood before, but it wasn’t until The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published the 1890 Manifesto banning polygamy that the gateway was opened for Utah to become a state.”
The Standard-Examiner, “Utah Prepares to Celebrate…”

“A new study found a frog in Brazil’s rainforests to be the first species of amphibian known to exhibit polygyny, having a harem of one male with two loyal female mates.”
Nature World News, “Male Frog in Brazil Found…”

“Muslim supporters of polygamy often cite Quran verse 4:3, which instructs men to take as many wives as they can take care of, up to four, and they also point out that the Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives. Historians have noted that Islamic guidance on polygamy was issued amid wars in Arabia in the seventh century, when there were many widows and orphans requiring financial support, and that polygamy created a system for them to be cared for.”
Pew Research Center, “Polygamy is Rare Around the World…”

“Legalization attempts failed in 2010, when female lawmakers demanded that if polygyny were made legal, then polyandry, which would allow a woman to take multiple husbands, should also be allowed.”
Politico Magazine, “Why Polygamy Is Bad for National…”

“The polygamist leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for sexually assaulting an under-age follower he took as a bride in what his church deemed a ‘spiritual marriage.'”
The New York Times, “Texas: Polygamist Leader Gets Life Sentence”

Sources: 

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polygamy
  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polygyny
  3. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/polygamy?s=t
  4. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/polygyny?s=t
  5. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=polygamy
  6. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=polygyny
  7. https://www.standard.net/news/state/utah-prepares-to-celebrate-125th-anniversary-of-statehood-with-fireworks-music/article_112f7d1b-5d92-5a10-96e3-78850854c42f.html
  8. https://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/44241/20200813/male-frog-brazil-found-practice-polygyny-harem-two-loyal-females.htm
  9. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/12/07/polygamy-is-rare-around-the-world-and-mostly-confined-to-a-few-regions/
  10. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/07/polygamy-national-security-putin-120234
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/us/10brfs-POLYGAMISTLE_BRF.html