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The Meaning and History Behind “Tying the Knot”

by Staff

“Tying the knot” is one of those phrases that you’ve probably heard numerous times throughout your life, whether it’s on television, in magazines, on social media, or in your daily conversations. And if you’re in the midst of planning a wedding, the saying is probably popping up even more frequently. Even though this idiom is commonly used in the English language—especially in the wedding space—not everyone actually knows what it means or where it comes from. That’s why we’re unpacking the origin story of this prevalent phrase. 

Meet the Expert

Somer Khouri Bedran is the co-founder of A Charming Fête, a destination wedding planning and design firm. She has 12 years of experience planning events.

Keep scrolling to learn the meaning and history behind “tying the knot.”

The Meaning Behind “Tying the Knot”

“Tying the knot” means to get married. The saying could also refer to the performance of a wedding ceremony. Since the idiom is thought to have derived from a tradition where couples physically tie a knot during their ceremony, the phrase has figurative and literal roots. Figuratively, someone might say, “Congratulations on tying the knot!” A literal translation might fall along the lines of, “The bride and groom incorporated tying the knot at their wedding.”

The History Behind “Tying the Knot”

In many cultures, knots symbolize unity, which is why including physical knots in wedding ceremonies has become a common practice. This tradition, otherwise known as the handfasting ceremony, is an ancient Celtic ritual in which someone ties the couple’s hands together using a ribbon or cord as a representation of two entities becoming one union. “This ceremony symbolizes their marriage being tied to them for the rest of their lives,” planner Somer Khouri Bedran of A Charming Fête says. The handfasting ritual is the primary reason why “tying the knot” signifies getting married and why the idiom has evolved into a regular part of everyday speech.

The handfasting ceremony dates as far back as 7000 B.C. In ancient Ireland, whenever two people decided to get married, someone fastened a braided cord or ribbon around their hands while a priest was present. The act verified the duo’s engagement, which typically lasted about a year, and announced to potential suitors that the woman was off the market. After the couple’s year-long engagement, the two assessed whether they were a good match. Then, they went back to the priest and shared whether or not they intended to wed. If they decided not to follow through with the wedding, they could each choose another partner.

Some historians also believe that in the 18th century, couples used the handfasting ceremony as a trial marriage, which lasted 366 days. During that period of time, the two would live together, like a real married couple. Once the timeframe was up, the pair discussed whether they wanted to stay together and get officially married or part ways. 

The ritual has now evolved into a common aspect of wedding ceremonies. Although the handfasting ceremony is frequently used in Wiccan or Pagan services, it has become a more mainstream practice across both secular and religious services. Over time, the recurring practice of binding hands together also made “tying the knot” a prevalent term for getting married.

Synonyms for “Tying the Knot”

“Tying the knot” has several synonyms that also denote getting married. Some interchangeable phrases are “getting hitched,” “walking down the aisle,” “saying ‘I do,’” and “becoming newlyweds.” Even though all of these sayings have the same meaning, each of them has a different origin. That being said, you can swap “tying the knot” for any of the aforementioned idioms.

Tips for Including “Tying the Knot” at Your Wedding

Since knots are a meaningful symbol at weddings, you might want to include a nod to the phrase at your own.

Add a handfasting ceremony.

A given is incorporating the handfasting ceremony into your nuptials. During the ritual, the officiant will most likely explain the significance of the practice before inviting you to join hands, signifying your free will to marry. Then, your officiant will recite vows as they wrap cords around your hands. You can either use a separate cord for each vow or wrap a handful of braided cords around your hands. After the custom is complete, you have the option of exchanging additional vows, or you can just use the handfasting as the primary vows.

Include knots in your big-day décor or food.

If the ritual doesn’t resonate with you, you can also include “tying the knot” in a more subtle way. One option is using knots as a recurring motif throughout your décor. Bedran loves the idea of incorporating an illustration of a knot into your custom crest to “metaphorically bind their initials together.” If you’re throwing a bash with a nautical or coastal aesthetic, knotted rope is a natural fit, whether it’s part of your tablescape or place settings.

Regardless of the look and feel of your big day, knotted accents are easy to include, such as serving a tray of soft pretzels at cocktail hour, accenting your head table with a knotted ribbon, or even topping each charger with a knotted napkin. Another idea is using the idiom in your signage. For instance, consider adding the phrase, “We Tied the Knot” at the top of your seating chart or displaying a neon sign with the words over a photo wall. 

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