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noun [countable] humorous

she who must be obeyed: a humorous way of referring to someone's wife or female partner

'Well today has been my own. SWMBO has been at work so I've had some peace and quiet …'

Narrowboat Alacrity [weblog] 23rd February 2008

'Her husband built everything, and she finished everything. I'm not big on finishing, so this sounds like a good plan. I was wondering how much others get their SWMBOs involved in the work?'

Old Tools 11th June 1999

like similar expressions, the phrase on which SWMBO is based suggests a kind of mock female dominance

Her indoors, The old lady, The trouble and strife, My other/better half … these are just some examples of those humorous, informal (or just plain irritating) ways of describing wives or female partners. The preponderance of references to women, rather than men, in such phrases suggests just how discriminatory the English language can be. And Internet-speak has now provided yet another to add to the set: if you're a regular web user, you might have come across someone referring to their beloved as SWMBO.

SWMBO, pronounced 'swimbo', is an acronym of 'She Who Must Be Obeyed', a tongue-in-cheek reference to a female partner. Though the phrase itself has been around for some time, the acronym form has only appeared relatively recently, popularised by use in blogs, forums, chatrooms and instant messaging. Like similar expressions, the phrase on which SWMBO is based suggests a kind of mock female dominance. This idea is carried over into a much less frequently used male counterpart: IAYM, an acronym of 'I Am Your Master'.

An alternative to SWMBO with arguably gentler overtones is GLW, an acronym of 'Good Lady Wife', which was originally popularised in Australia but now also occurs across the English-speaking Internet.

Background – SWMBO

The expression on which SWMBO is based, She Who Must Be Obeyed, was brought into general recognition in the late seventies by a British television series called Rumpole Of The Bailey. The main character in the series, Horace Rumpole, is a London defence barrister. As well as featuring Rumpole's legal activities, the drama also deals with his personal life and family relationships, notably his wife Hilda, who he secretly refers to as she who must be obeyed.

Though the Rumpole series popularised the expression, its first use in fact dates back to a 19th century novel entitled She, by British author and scholar Henry Rider Haggard. The title serves as an abbreviation of the phrase she who must be obeyed, a mark of respect which is used to refer to Ayesha, a fictitious white queen featured in the novel. It is also claimed that during his childhood, Haggard's nursemaid threatened him with an ugly doll which she described as she who must be obeyed.

This article was first published on 12th August 2008.

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