What Is SWMBO Anyway?

(There are several nested quotes in this article so they are color coded for your convenience. My text is in black.)

My friend Phil Kosin once wrote in response to a typical query about this term:

SWMBO is a popular acronym* used frequently on the web for

She Who Must Be Obeyed

A while back, Jack LM wrote:

During the height of the Victorian era, Henry Rider Haggard wrote a series of thrilling adventures set in Africa, then known as the dark continent. One of these was entitled King Soloman's (sic) Mines. The story concerned the search for the lost tribe of King Soloman (sic) and their diamond mines. The leader of the tribe was the mysterious and ageless Ayesha. Her subjects were forbidden to call her by her real name. They could only call her “She.” She had the power of life and death over her subjects, therefore She was most often refered to as “She, who must be obeyed.”

Internet forum folks and newsies have shortened this to SWMBO. As noted elsewhere, Rumpole (a British TV show character) often refered to his wife as SWMBO. This was normally muttered softly under his breath while performing some task for his rather overbearing spouse.

So there you have it. More info than you ever cared to hear about SWMBO.


This was subsequently posted by James Carr in response to yet another query, whence SWMBO?

Because of an earlier thread on this subject, my curiosity was aroused and I found a source of H. Rider Haggard's books on the internet. The site I found is bibliomania.com.

I read King Solomon's Mines, and although there was a very old, shrivelled woman in that story, there was no She-who-must-be-obeyed.

That title appeared in a book named She, by the same author, which I also recently read. The subject of the book is a beautiful (white) woman who has lived for over two thousand years, who possesses some secrets and powers that keep her in charge of the primitive (black) people over whom she rules. (Click here to go directly to the story.)

In spite of the obvious prejudices and attitudes of the time in which the books were written, and the sometimes tedious 19th century writing style, they are pretty good stories overall. I don't, however, recommend reading entire books from your computer screen.

Click on the thumbnail to see a scan of the cover of a paperback version of the book.
Further Update!

Tim Kuchta wrote:

I believe that I have the absolute original usage of, "She who must be obeyed". I say that because the instance I found is roughly 5000 years old, from the "Epic of Gilgamesh". This is supposedly the oldest story known to exist. Below is a link to both the page with the usage (top) and the main Gilgamesh Epic page (bottom). For a 5000 year old story it is a bit pornographic, so be advised if you read through it. Either way, it seems obvious that men feared the women-folk, even back then!

Sadly both of the links Tim cited are broken. However, the complete text of the epic is also at ancienttexts.org, although the quote that Tim asserts isn't in it, so far as I could see (different translation, perhaps—see discussion below).

I found Tim's note and the sites fascinating, and with search engine in hand, set off to find out about Gilgamesh. I concluded the following:

  • The various tablets containing the story in Sumerian cuneiform text were first discovered in 1872.

  • Translation (the operative word for this discussion) was obviously subsequent to 1872.

  • The phrase, in English, bandied about on the web; She Who Must Be Obeyed; not surprisingly doesn't actually appear on the tablets.

  • I have to take it on faith that the (19th century) translation is from some Sumerian words which would be other than She, or Who, or Must, or Be, or Obeyed, it being unlikely there are many cognates between English and Sumerian.

  • I don't dispute that the meanings of the words are relatively faithful renditions of the Sumerian sentiment, just that they aren't, actually, the words in dispute. To put it another way, this discussion would be meaningless in French, German, or Russian.

  • Haggard's "She" was published in 1885, so although the point that the Gilgamesh references are older is conceded, I would admit to only by a dozen years or so; possibly less.

Moreover, in perusing some other links I discovered that there are Sumerian/English dictionaries available, and a search of some found:

She:Ananene, or Ene-E-Ne, or Enene

Although I would not even presume to offer an English to Sumerian translation, it is fair to say that the original Sumerian text might have had a phrase that took a form such as

Ananene A-Ba ### &&& Sed

where ### and &&& are unknown Sumerian words equivalent to the imperative must and some form of the infinitive to be, respectively, and of course, some declention of the verb obey. Clearly that is not the phrase we are looking for, although the message might be.

So, while I am delighted to have some heretofore unsuspected knowledge thrust upon me, and I am pleased at the effort Mr. Kuchta expended in presenting this information, I suspect that the actual English phrase, she who must be obeyed is a little over 120 years old, although the sentiment may indeed have been expressed more than 50 centuries ago. I am also confident that SWMBO is a relatively modern contraction, a function of typewriting and computing, perhaps.

Now, what do they say in Swahili that would be functionally equivalent to SWMBO?

*Pronunciation Issues

Although Phil refers to it as an acronym, there was some debate as to whether it truly is. While an acronym, by definition, is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary), I have always taken acronym to be a pronouncable word.

Consequently, SWMBO (pronounced swimbo) is a true acronym, but if one articulates it ess double-you emm bee oh, I don't feel that is an acronym. The argument has been made that women don't care for the swimbo option, because it rhymes with bimbo—however, that is the same logic used by the folks in Washington, D.C., some years ago when they got in an uproar about a city official's use of the word niggardly.

The pronouncable word is my choice, particularly since it is efficient of time and effort. Ess double-you emm bee oh just takes too much of both.

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Last updated: 27 January 2009

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