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Word of the Week: Pantoffelheld

If you’ve ever encountered a man who fearfully submits to his wife’s every will, you’ve probably met a Pantoffelheld.

Comprised of two nouns, this German word directly translates to “slipper hero.” But a Pantoffelheld is not heroic in any traditional sense: the closest English rendition is a “henpecked” or “whipped” husband, thereby defining a man who is plagued by the commands of an overbearing wife.

A Pantoffelheld may act tough in front of his friends, but flees any situation at the first sign of danger and is unable to stand up for himself. At home, the henpecked husband takes orders from his wife – the person wearing the Pantoffeln (slippers). In fear of being crushed under her slippers, the henpecked husband becomes submissive: he has little to say in the household and tries only to please his lady.

A Pantoffelheld is often embarrassed about his status in front of others, which is why he publicly depicts himself as a man who wears the pants in the relationship – a “hero” in the household.

The term originated in the 19th century – a time when German women usually cooked, cleaned, raised children and worked in the home. Shoes were viewed as a symbol of power and dominance and wives often wore slippers in the household, which further explains the term Pantoffelheld.

The English language does not have a term that describes a henpecked husband, but this type of man exists throughout the world. In 1788, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a poem describing a Pantoffelheld’s plight.

“Curs’d be the man, the poorest wretch in life, the crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!” the poem reads. “Who has no will but by her high permission, who has not sixpence but in her possession.”

Although the term Pantoffelheld originated in the 19th century, it can retroactively be used to describe many famous relationships. The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is often described as a Pantoffelheld; his wife, Xanthippe, was the dominant force in the marriage. She supposedly had a bad temper and never stopped nagging the philosopher. At one point, Xanthippe poured a bucket of cleaning water over Socrates’ head – an action that is depicted in several paintings. The philosopher reacted calmly, stating that “after thunder comes rain.” Socrates supposedly once stated that he married the “old hag” to practice his patience. But by refusing to stand up against his overbearing wife, he essentially became a Pantoffelheld.

So next time you’re at home, you might want to ask yourself: who’s wearing the slippers?

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