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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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.
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…”
“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…”
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