The British government has for some years been trying to make the language of the civil law more easily comprehensible to the layman (see my article on an earlier change). This was only partially successful, the force of tradition being too strong for words like writ or plaintiff to vanish in favour of claim form and claimant outside formal proceedings. Last week the government proposed changing terms in the family courts, which years ago were called the divorce courts. The intermediate judgement, the decree nisi (from the Latin word meaning “unless”) is to be called a conditional order and the final decree absolute will become the divorce order. The person called the co-respondent becomes the second respondent.
This last change hardly seems an improvement, though I guess the aim is to remove some of the historical stigma attached to the role. Co-respondent came into the language following the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act to describe the person who has sex with an adulterous spouse. Divorce was difficult to obtain and often resulted in a public dirty-laundry-washing spectacle as matrimonial matters were thrashed out in open court, providing juicy material for readers of the gutter press. Jerome K Jerome noted in 1899 in Second Thoughts of An Idle Fellow: “Now we are passionate lovers, well losing a world for love — a very different thing to being a laughter-provoking co-respondent in a sordid divorce case.”
Marcel Berlins commented on co-respondent in the Guardian on 25 February: “Legally, the word covers both men and women, but the public image of a co-respondent was usually that of a spivvy, silver-tongued individual with a questionable past, charming his way into the bed of an innocent young wife. In fact, before the days of ‘no-fault’ divorce, you risked not only social death but financial ruin if you were a co-respondent: you could be sued by the angry cuckold and have to pay large sums in damages.” The 1857 act allowed only men to be co-respondents, which explains why the definition of co-respondent in the Oxford English Dictionary, unchanged from its first draft in 1893, conflicts with Mr Berlins’ comment: “In a divorce suit, a man charged with the adultery and proceeded against together with the respondent or wife.”
Even if government proposals stamp out co-respondent from the legal system, it will be retained in co-respondent shoes, those two-tone horrors that for most men went out with the lounge lizards of the 1930s (they’re also called spectator shoes). A G MacDonell wrote in How Like an Angel in 1934 about “Those singularly repulsive shoes of black and white which are called co-respondents (quite wrongly called, incidentally, for co-respondents at least get or give some fun and these shoes do neither).” In view of the male bias of the term, it is notable that one of the most famous wearers of the shoes was the divorced Wallis Simpson, whose love affair with Edward VIII caused his abdication in 1936.
They are said to be called that because they were often outside hotel rooms, ostensibly to be cleaned, as an easily identifiable signal that hanky-panky should be assumed to be taking place within. This was because the only cause for divorce at the time was adultery by one partner. For a couple to arrange a divorce in an amicable way, one member — it was commonly the man — had to be caught in flagrante with another woman. A minor industry grew up in which housemaids in hotels augmented their wages by giving evidence of having found the supposedly adulterous couple in bed together. This origin for the shoes’ name could just be a tale, of course. The true source may be just that in the 1930s they were the fashionable wear of a certain male type, which the Belfast Telegraph described in a piece of April 2007 about the cad: “Once you could tell him from 20 yards away by his Tattersall check waistcoat. Or the co-respondent shoes. Or his driving gloves. No gentleman would be seen dead wearing any of them, and the thing about the cad is that he lacks the instincts of a gentleman.”
Though fundamental changes in divorce law have long since abolished this mucky and degrading business, the term has survived. Indeed, I am told that co-respondent shoes are making a comeback. Their name will provide a continuing link to a part of British social history thankfully now over.