Polygamy vs. Polygyny – What’s the Difference?

If you have more than one wife, do you know what word describes your predicament?

What if you have multiple spouses of unspecified gender? Can you use the same word?

These situations only concern a narrow slice of the English-speaking population, but luckily, there are words to describe them. Polygamy and polygyny refer to the practice of marrying more than one person, but as this article will explain, who those people are matters.

What is the Difference Between Polygamy and Polygyny?

In this article, I will compare the terms polygamy vs. polygyny. I will use each of these term in an example sentence to demonstrate its use in context.

Plus, I will show you a mnemonic device that will help you choose polygyny or polygamy¸ depending on the subject of your writing.

When to Use Polygamy

polygamy versus polygyny What does polygamy mean? Polygamy is a noun. It refers to the practice of having more than one spouse.

Over the course of human history, polygamy has been practiced by many cultures. The biblical King Solomon is said to have had 300 wives, along with 700 concubines.

More recently, Mormon populations in North America practiced polygamy until the 1890s, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially abandoned its doctrines on the matter.

Here are a few more examples of the word polygamy in a sentence,

  • Although there is no federal law against polygamy in the United States, all 50 states have laws against the practice.
  • Polygamy assumes that the involved parties are married; a person can simultaneously date as many people as possible without breaking state laws against polygamy.
  • The long legal battle over polygamy in Utah now appears headed to the appeals courts. –The Washington Post

When to Use Polygyny

definition of polygamy definition of polygyny definitionWhat does polygyny mean? Polygyny is also a noun. It refers to a specific type of polygamy: namely, the practice of having more than one wife.

Both of the historical examples in the section above are technically polygyny. Solomon had more than one wife, and Mormon men in North America took multiple wives in accordance with the religious doctrine of the times.

Here are some sentences that contain the word polygyny,

  • Nevada does not recognize polygyny, so Trevor’s marriage to both Lisa and Mackenzie one fateful night in Las Vegas was not legally binding.
  • Gregory’s attempted polygyny was not taken lightly by either of his two prospective wives.

When a person has more than one spouse, the word is polygamy. If the spouses are wives, polygyny is a more specific term. If the spouses are husbands, the appropriate word is polyandry.

Thus, polygyny and polyandry are two forms of polygamy.

Trick to Remember the Difference: Polygyny vs. Polygamy

For any marriage in which a person has more than one spouse, use polygamy. If those spouses are wives, the people in this marriage are practicing polygyny, a specific type of polygamy.

The root gyn is Greek for woman or female—just like in the words gynecologist and misogyny. Since wives are women, and polygyny is the practice of having more than one wife, this Greek root is your clue to the meaning of polygyny.

Summary

Is it polygamy or polygyny? Both of these terms relate to having more than one spouse, but one is more specific than the other.

  • Polygamy is the practice of having more than one spouse.
  • Polygyny is the practice of having more than one wife.
  • Polyandry is the practice of having more than one husband.

To summarize, polygyny is a type of polygamy.

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